Friend, I don’t know how your brain works. For me, the most unsupported, errant thought will sometimes get stuck up in there like Phineas Gage at a magnetic cocaine party. A lyric reminds you of an old pet, or a passing stranger looks vaguely like someone you used to know, or the smell of a simmering soup transports you to a road trip years ago in a place you can’t recall. The brain forges ironclad associations on even the most tenuous of similarities, so instead of fighting against that illogic, why not embrace the invisible cartography of our nonsensical inner worlds?
To that end: from the first time I listened to Diskord’s magnificent new album Degenerations, I have been unshakably convinced that it is the death metal version of Eric Dolphy’s album Out There. (If you happen to be jazz-phobic, then A) please sort yourself out, and B) feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.)
Eric Dolphy was an astonishingly gifted and innovative jazz musician who, like many of his generation of players, died far too young (of diabetes at age 36). In his work throughout the 1950s and early 1960s playing support alongside such jazz titans as John Coltrane, Chico Hamilton, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and Oliver Nelson, but most particularly in his limited time making records as leader, he was one of the most versatile reed players ever. Apart from the alto saxophone, he also helped expand the possibilities of both flute and bass clarinet as improvisational voices, and pursued a ferociously independent style of soloing that pulled post-bop in unexpected directions without ever quite tilting fully into free jazz.
On his 1961 quartet album Out There (recorded August 1960), Dolphy had pushed significantly outwards, but had not embraced the avantgarde for its own sake. Despite the wild, loping imagination of his soloing, it’s really the tones and textures of Out There that are so striking, because against the backdrop of Roy Haynes’s drumming and George Duvivier’s bass, Dolphy is joined by Ron Carter (known primarily as a bassist, most famously as part of Miles Davis’s second great quintet before going on to a wide-ranging career as band leader and support that continues to this day) on the cello. Without a piano or guitar to lay down chords, Dolphy and Carter play in a space that is both curiously grounded but also wide open, and the tone of Carter’s cello as it doubles Dolphy’s melodies is just as reedy on its high-necked runs as if it were a second, mutated saxophone. Listen to “The Baron,” where Dolphy (on bass clarinet) and Carter introduce the theme, but then Carter immediately drops into a bowed cello solo against Duvivier’s plucked bass.
Importantly, though, Out There feels like a pure jazz album that just happens to be weird because of the strength of vision that its artists radiate. So, too, is it with Diskord’s Degenerations – this is a pure, technically demanding, tonally aggressive, quarrelsome death metal album that is also just preternaturally strange.
Degenerations is the Norwegian trio’s third full-length album, but represents the first new release of any kind since their great 2014 EP Oscillations, and it represents an almost absurd leveling-up from the already excellent style that had been established at least as far back as 2007’s Doomscapes. This is an album that doesn’t so much rumble along as it clatters, needles, tumbles, hammers, and whinnies. Despite the strangeness baked into the formula, this is exactly a regular-ass death metal album in at least the sense that it spews out riff after riff like the esophageal lining of a Carolina Reaper-eating contest winner. And yet, the riffs are abstruse, interrupted, jagged, and prone to circle back around just when you thought they were done.
The band throws out transitions that whiplash mercilessly within songs, with a bloody eagerness to flip from sharp, staccato rhythms into rolling blasts or swing-time, and then back again. Also furthering the strangeness is the hugely prominent role that Eyvind Wærsted Axelsen’s bass plays throughout, not just playing funky runs underneath riffing, but often setting the melodic pace of a song while “new” guitarist Dmitry Sukhinin (who joined Diskord years ago but is on record with the band for the first time here) peels off eerie effects in the upper register. In fact, if you mapped out the full 41 minutes of the album, I suspect you’d find that lead duties are shared almost evenly between bass and guitar.
Sometimes these mutant rhythms sound like the braininess of latter-day Gorguts dredged through the molasses-thick swamp stomp of Obituary (see “Dirigiste Radio Hit”), and sometimes they sound like Autopsy circa Severed Survival just slightly on the comedown side of an acid trip. Elsewhere, “Bionic Tomb Eternal” opens with a funky groove and the kind of drumming that makes you think you might have fallen through a manhole cover into a discotheque in the Oslo city sewer system. (Speaking of percussion, one of Hans Jørgen Ersvik’s secret weapons is a liberal and extremely satisfying use of cowbell throughout the album.)
In addition to the standard death metal instrumentation, Degenerations also features Axelsen playing on a number of instruments that are rare in death metal, including cello, electric upright bass, and even theremin. Just as with Dolphy’s Out There, this atypical instrumentation is never used as a gimmick, but rather serves as a way of exploring how to pursue their chosen craft with a new set of tools. “The Endless Spiral” is one of the best examples of how Diskord does this, because the strings (likely the cello, but it can be hard to tell) drive the sinister melodicism at the song’s core rather than just drape it with a small flourish.
All three band members contribute vocals on Degenerations, which adds to the shapeshifting aspect of the album, and Colin Marston’s mix and mastering is perfect, highlighting the shearing force of their guitar tone but always providing a naturalistic sound and clear separation of all the elements jostling to be heard. On the spooky interlude “Lone Survivor,” you can hear a little bit of how a band like Chaos Echoes similarly deconstructed death metal into its constituent elements, but for the most part, Degenerations only hints at that level of experimentation.
Diskord has achieved a fairly remarkable balancing act on this album. If you imagine looking at a pointillist painting from the exact middle-distance, where you can see the shapes dissolving into individual points, but also perceive the whole, unbroken image, that’s what Diskord does on the album. Each song is a tightly composed puzzle, even as individual elements sometimes veer into a near-ecstasy of overload. Late-album highlights include “Clawing at the Fabric of Space” and “Raging Berzerker in the Universe Rigid,” the latter of which features a wickedly cool mid-song bass break that introduces a new motif and a frantic closing section backed by either synth or theremin overtones.
This is one of those albums where it’s just as easy to find yourself thrown bodily around the room as it is to sit quietly and get lost in all of its perpendicular intricacies. Its technicality has far more in common with the tech-thrash or early progressive death metal of the late 80s and early 90s than anything particularly modern, in that rather than keeping mechanistic, unrelenting pace, the songs are loose and natural even while the band taps out frantically precise half-measures and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them transitions. If you happen to feel so compelled, listen to the album closer “Beyond the Grime” in the same spirit you listen to Dolphy’s side B closer “Feathers,” except on “Beyond the Grime” it’s Axelsen’s strings playing the same plaintive lead style that Dolphy cries through his alto on “Feathers.” Of course these things sound nothing like each other, but there’s a spirit, an attitude, an intention that spans time and genre.
Remember, brains are unreliable. I don’t know if you will hear what I hear, but that’s the entire gamble of this whole business of using words to describe sounds. What I can say with near certainty is that if you have any particular affinity for death metal that takes huge swings for fences which have yet to be built while remaining absolutely grounded in the primordial muck of the genre’s foundations, Diskord’s Degenerations will give you exactly what you need. Do not miss this album.