Verminous Serpent – The Malign Covenant Review

Friends, I don’t know about you, but sometimes I lose my patience with black/death metal. Too many bands focus their energy on kicking up an intimidating, claustrophobic racket, but they forget to start with riffs and never craft a real personality. As a result, a lot of black/death metal is superficially satisfying but ultimately faceless and forgettable. Ireland’s Verminous Serpent, thankfully, put grimly swaggering riffs and a fiercely confident personality front and center on their excellent debut, The Malign Covenant.

Although Verminous Serpent is a new band, the trio’s members are hardly novices. Alan Averill of Primordial plays bass and provides vocals, Matt Bree of Malthusian plays drums, and Joseph Deegan of Slidhr plays guitar. Verminous Serpent’s music could certainly be described as ritualistic black/death metal, and yet it is equally animated by the first wave black metal of Venom, Bathory, and Hellhammer, which provides a sneering, spiteful attitude that keeps the album from sinking into pompousness.

Despite the fact that Deegan’s roiling, sometimes slow motion black/thrash trilling riffs form the backbone of each song, the combined effect of the music is to induce a hypnotic, black trance where atmosphere and groove are given equal play. Averill’s bass often swings in sync with Deegan’s guitar lines, but the tone is a ragged, bottom-scraping scuzz that slathers the songs in just the right kind of mud-caked muck. Bree’s drumming is the album’s not-so-secret weapon, as it shifts easily from short fits of malevolent blasting to longer stretches of patiently coiled intensity. His drums often take on a lead role in sections where they carry and then offset the riffing, like on the thudding accents during the massive breakdown about 4:15 into “Seraphim Falls” or the snare hits just opposite the main riff at the end of the album’s title track.

The production of these songs is done perfectly, highlighting rumbling low-end and an overall griminess yet never sacrificing any clarity. The recording retains the band’s crackling, raw rehearsal room energy, like on “Chasm of Nameless Bone,” which opens with tentative squall and feedback before dropping into a groove that sounds like a classic Celtic Frost stomp dragged through molasses. Alongside the first wave pioneers and general black/death gnarliness, at times The Malign Covenant feels like a spiritual twin to such dark jewels as Ruins of Beverast or Faustcoven, to Negative Plane’s Et in Saecula Saeculorum or Satyricon’s “Black Lava.”

Averill’s vocals are, unsurprisingly, powerful and varied, and yet the interesting thing is that if you didn’t know it was him, I doubt you would recognize him. Despite using a range of voices across projects as disparate as Primordial, Blood Revolt, Void of Silence, and Twilight of the Gods, Averill’s style for Verminous Serpent is unlike any of those. His vocals here are a low, scouring acid, sometimes sounding like a halfway point between Inquisition’s Dagon and Averill’s own blackest screeching on Primordial’s Imrama. His bass also occasionally plays a more searching, lead role while the guitar squeals and keens in the background.

The Malign Covenant reaches a horrifying apex on the 13-minute closing track, “Deaths Head Mantra,” which embraces most fully both extremes of Verminous Serpent’s sound. The song whips up the fervor into the fastest, most intense passages of the album, while other sections pull even further back into patient suspension. Around the midway point, Averill breaks out some pained wailing that feels a little closer to his style in other bands, but it’s particularly arresting in the context of where it occurs in the album. The song eventually burns itself to ash and relents to echoing organ and whispers, the ghastly silence of the end.

Someone listening to The Malign Covenant could plausibly level the criticism that the album is too monochromatic, but that seems most likely to be caused by either passive, surface-level listening or by misunderstanding the band’s intent. These songs bring the listener down into a trench of feverish determination, a grimy miasma of calculated menace. It might just rekindle a dormant fire in you, if you can meet its gaze.

Posted by Dan Obstkrieg

Happily committed to the foolish pursuit of words about sounds. Not actually a dinosaur.

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