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Benediction, as the underdogs of the British death fucking metal scene, reached what I consider to be the apex of their career with this album. At first glace, it looks like standard issue brutal death metal. The beautiful cover art by Dan Seagrave, the classic-looking logo, the cool yet seemingly meaningless album title...but when one pops this monster into the CD player and hits "PLAY", a wild ride ensues. You see, folks, the problem with both of the band's previous albums were that while the music was decent (in some cases, brilliant!) the production was never able to suit their sound. Okay, okay...the god-awful production did grant an unsettling atmosphere to the "The Grand Leveller" CD, but with this album we really get to see Benediction's true power for the first time - with a production that genuinely sounds "good", because I always felt that some of the reason Benediction are rarely mentioned in death metal circles today, is because the poor production values of their early albums kept them from reaching the cult status of their peers.
Anyway, what we get here is a pretty decent mixture of old and new. Benediction's slightly punk-influenced (mostly in the drumming) style of death metal remains fully intact, but with some notable changes, some of which forewarn the listener about the direction the band would go with their next album (the majority of "Painted Skulls" and the breakdown in "Violation Domain" have hardcore written all over them), and others hint at a surprising degree of technicality and musicianship that brings to mind what Death was up to at the time, on the "Individual Thought Patterns" album. While Benediction were never a solo-based band...and that remains on this album for the most part, with only four of the album's nine songs containing a guitar solo...the solos really take on a life of their own here. I get a very sharp Chuck Schuldiner vibe from the melodic shreddings of Darren Brookes and Peter Rew, and considering Death is my all-time favorite band, that is a compliment!
Dave Ingram grunts on this album, and I believe his voice on here was his crowning achievement. His voice on the next album totally sucked, and let's be honest, "Honor-Valor-Pride", while a masterpiece, is not a very good representation of Ingram's style either. Here he delivers a very powerful vocal performance that fits Benediction's musical style like a hand fits a banana, comparable to the likes of Karl Willets or Barney Greenway (both of whom he has replaced at some point in his career), but with his own spin on things (very important to add that!).
The real crowning jewel here (outside of the killer riffs, solos, drums, vocals, and everything else that is also killer), are the lyrics. I say this because while seemingly nonsensical, they give off a very disturbing atmosphere of genuine insanity. I won't post any sections of lyrics in here, because you'll skip over that, but if you're interested check out the lyrics to "Nightfear", "Paradox Alley", or "Painted Skulls". These lyrics are simple and to the point, and seem at first to be devoid of any noticeable pattern or meaning (he goes from singing about "abysmal roars" to little girls with razor blades in a single line), but contain some really killer and memorable lines ("PREYING ON THE SKULLS OF MAN - SOFTLY AFTER DAWN!!!"). For this reason, I suggest the listener pick up an original pressing, because not only does he (or she) get a copy of the killer album cover, but also the lyrics are printed within.
The drumming is simple but effective. If you are into blast beats or whatever...you will hate this album, because there is not a single blast beat on the entire album. The drums have a distinct punk/thrash flavor which I feel enhances the killer riffs. Oh, and the riffs...I almost forgot to talk about the riffs! Just go check out "Nightfear", with it's unforgettable opening riff, or "Violation Domain", with the absolutely evil opening chords, which are followed by what is without question one of the catchiest riffs in all of death metal. If you check out those moments, I needn't say more about this album's merits in the riff department. Oh, and 1:00 in "Blood From Stone", and the death metal anthem that is the unforgettable "I BOW TO FUCKING NONE". The "fucking" is not part of the actual title, but it might as well be, because that is what I scream in the faces of random bystanders while I play air-guitar to this album in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
All in all, "Transcend the Rubicon" is a very worthy purchase for all old-school death metal aficionados. The album has everything that an old school death metal fan could want in an album, particularly if you are a fan of bands like Asphyx, Bolt Thrower, Master, Massacre, or "Harmony Corruption"-era Napalm Death. If you are a Benediction fan, and you don't own this album, don't think twice about snatching it up.
NOTE: As far as pressings are concerned, do not get the Nuclear Blast re-issue with "The Dreams You Dread". The original album art is not in the sleeve, no lyrics (a website is listed for lyrics available for free download, but the link is dead), and while I cannot comment on this particular album (as I have the "Subconscious Terror"/"The Grand Leveller" one), but the one I have is filled with spelling errors (including the album titles on the CD itself, and the logo printed on the CD is too big for the cd, and is cut off. All in all, the extra money for an original press is worth the money.
The early to mid 90s are looked upon fondly insofar as death metal is concerned, particularly if the locale is situated in Florida, New York, or Sweden. By contrast, the original land of heavy metal otherwise known as the U.K. generally tends to be left by the wayside, despite fielding some very impressive acts during said time period. Sure, most of the best known bands have had a heavier impact on the grindcore/goregrind scene (Napalm Death, Carcass), but apart from Bolt Thrower, death metal tends to leave this region wanting, and it's not for any lack of quality. Bands such as Cancer and the subject of this review Benediction, put out some solid material that rivals much of the influential material that came out of Sweden at around the same time.
While all of Benediction's early 90s offerings are to be cherished as strong examples of how death and thrash metal continued to co-exist within the same bands even as a greater number of bands were going for something more brutal and less rhythmically precise, "Transcend The Rubicon" has a particularly special place. The ingenious and vivid cover art alone is worthy of consideration, as Dan Seagrave essentially tapped into the same brilliant approach that gave Dismember's "Like An Ever Flowing Stream" it's instant appeal and even surpasses it in terms of how detailed the imagery is. And interestingly enough, the musical contents contained within to speak to a similar overall sound to what both Entombed and Dismember were putting out before the former went into death n' roll territory and the latter met the mid 90s.
Much of this album is dominated by thrashing mayhem comparable to the characteristic style of the mid to late 80s death/thrash sound of "Scream Bloody Gore" and "Schizophrenia". The production quality is notably free from the muddy character that typified Obituary's early efforts and comes off as closer to the crisp, punchy sound of earlier Slayer-inspired death metal, though there is a similar flirtation with slower, doom-like tempos at times that do concur with some of Obituary's material on "Slowly We Rot". When dealing with the nimble and riff happy character of up tempo songs such as "Unfound Mortality", "Paradox Alley" and "Violation Domain", it's very easy to hear the commonalities with early Death, though vocalist Dave Ingram has a deeper growl that's a little closer to Glen Benton and the solos are not quite as fancy.
However, Benediction does a solid job at varying up the formula a bit and comes out with a few surprisingly good upper mid-tempo and even some down-tempo material that seems to flirt with the recently concocted death n' roll sound that Entombed went to on "Wolverine Blues", though thankfully this proves to be more of an occasional device rather than an entire album of over-simplified, slowed down grooving. "Nightfear" and "Face Without Soul" are solid examples of how a grooving, almost Metallica-like riff set can function well with a constant stream of mid-tempo double bass work and a garbled shout, but the real song where things get into 90s death n' roll territory is "Painted Skulls". At times this song takes on a slight "The Thing That Should Not Be" feel to it, but it takes care not to drag out for too long, though it definitely takes it's time to get going.
There is a lot to be said about the seminal offerings of bands like Bolt Thrower, Deicide and Suffocation and how their sounds shaped the ongoing ebb and flow of death metal in the 90s, but bands like Benediction are definitely entitled to some much needed attention for adding to and reaffirming the same ideas that continue to define the style. This album is pretty much exclusive fodder for old school fans as there is very little in the way of modern brutal or technical elements to speak of. It speaks more to a crowd that doesn't dismiss albums like "Seven Churches" and "Morbid Visions" as being glorified thrash albums and isn't as into the current wave of flashy or otherwise messy modernity surrounding the sub-genre. But more importantly, it's an album marked by a delicate balance of consistency and contrast that is not as widely heard of lately. Regardless to whether one prefers elaborate temple cities to flesh consuming zombies, this is an album in need of a larger audience.
Whenever I read “Dave Ingram”, I immediately think of the Ingram MAC-10 submachine gun. Considering how beastly Dave Ingram’s vocals sound, I’m not too far off when it comes to ferocity. This man is a god damn adultery-committing, carefree sinning monster on the mic. They aren’t guttural like Chris Barnes at the time, but they do the job as good as Karl Willets ever could. Yes, the vocals would fit well with any Bolt Thrower album since I hear very little difference between them: mournful growling; demonic and mutilated as can be.
Now when it comes to riffs, you can bet the experience will be brutal, but also family friendly. I say this because the song titles can be misleading: “Painted Skulls” may sound like a typical death metal extravaganza, but it’s a pretty bouncy, death ‘n roll tune that’s easy on the ears. The entire album isn’t like this, but it can lead to some surprising moments when you’re not expecting it. Most of the time, yes, the pace charges forward to accomplish slaying the weak and throwing poseurs off of the bridge or torturing them within the city on the cover art (I’ll go into detail on that later on). The tone of the album isn’t really sinister or grotesque, but I would clump it with others as being a dark album. It isn’t really melodic, but most of the riffs do drench themselves in a gutless veil of thrashy catchiness.
Actually, the album comes off as very playful and innocent, rather than stern and evil, which is really hard to imagine. Every time I hear this I don’t really picture a band that strictly follows an ideology (like Benton from Deicide), but rather plays death metal very skillfully in a fun, thrashy manner. Drumming helps add on to this tone since it doesn’t just hammer away blast beats and joins the riffs in running around, be it through your head or in the ancient city on the cover (hold on a little longer, I’ll get to it). Bass support never goes beyond backing the guitars, which themselves are very thick and rich. I can’t really see the bass doing anything else to the same effect, since the songs are pretty short by my standards. Still, the album manages to stretch things out to nearly fifty minutes, which doesn’t sound right considering everything goes by pretty quickly.
So, the cover art… I remember seeing it years ago and, like many of you, I was captivated. Such detail, color, vigor, and skill – it could only be done by Dan Seagrave. Honestly, this cover art remains one of the best in death metal (I even have a poster of it on my wall) and there is so much to look at in it: the red, illuminated torture chamber, what looks like a miniature rendition of the Tower of Babel (or just some random ziggurat), a bottomless pit on the other side of the bridge, and much, much more. So awesome, and it gives you more to hold on for your buck when it comes down to it. All we need now is a Seagrave Open Air taking place in the artwork so that we can get a metal equivalent to the famous Along the River During the Qingming Festival paintings.
So anyway, this album is a unique experience but sounds fairly ordinary on the outside. It sort of lives up to its cover art, but does more justice on a personal level and holds a few inside jokes that I ended up finding (the family friendly deal). It easily stands out in Benediction’s catalog and that of death metal’s glory days, but you won’t know it unless you hear for yourself.
Benediction, formed in 1989, are one of the longest-standing Death Metal outfits to ever come out of Great Britain. Known for the kind of down-to-earth, totally old-school Death Metal sound that’s genuinely British but also quite rare nowadays, they’re often mentioned alongside fellow Brits Bolt Thrower, with whom they share a similar musical style and fan base. As opposed to Bolt Thrower, however, Benediction are much more varied tempo-wise: whereas the former have largely abandoned any particularly fast songs since their first two albums, the latter mix things up a lot more. Another difference is that Bolt Thrower rely heavily on melodic guitar leads, something Benediction, whose sound is dominated by catchy riffs and slightly more complex (but still very basic) rhythm patterns, are not commonly known for.
That’s right folks, Benediction are as purist and stripped down as Death Metal can possibly be, and Transcend the Rubicon is the perfect example: no pompous keyboards, no sappy pseudo-romantic female vocals, no pretentious pseudo-epic song structures – just raw guttural vocals, simple yet very effective drum patterns, and razor-sharp guitar riffs. In other words, old-school Death Metal down your throat!
One particular feature, however, that makes Transcend the Rubicon something pretty special, something more than just another solid Death Metal record, is that it somehow manages to be both monotonous and varied at the same time. Although none of the songs stray from the trademark Benediction formula, this album isn’t predictable at all – alternating between slow, at times almost Doom-like tracks such as “Painted Skulls” and fast thrashers such as “Unfound Mortality” or “Paradox Alley,” as well as throwing in lots of well-placed breaks during most of the songs, the band succeeds in keeping things interesting. Every song is easily recognizable, quite a feat for an album that stays true to the same formula from start to finish.
Another positive aspect is the very competent production, which emphasizes the guitars without sacrificing balance. The guitar tone is nearly perfect – it’s very aggressive despite not being down-tuned as much as what we’re used to from such bands as Morbid Angel or Dismember. The drummer isn’t spectacular, but he gets the job done. The bass player provides a thick low end to the overall sound, although it’s not like you can actually hear what he’s playing. The vocals are another highlight: Dave Ingram, who for a little while also strained his vocal cords for Bolt Thrower, delivers a masterful deep growl that’s pleasantly articulate.
As far as the songs themselves are concerned, there are absolutely no fillers to be found. It doesn’t matter if they play fast or slow, Benediction are always right on the money, making it nearly impossible to pick any particular highlights. I’d like to point out the final two tracks though, “Wrong Side of the Grave” (featuring a couple of guest musicians including Karl Willetts of Bolt Thrower) and “Artefacted / Spit Forth,” which in the booklet are modestly referred to as “live studio jams/outtakes,” but are nonetheless among the best songs on Transcend the Rubicon. Both are characterized by a somewhat rougher, less polished production quality and very straight songwriting, giving them an almost Punkish vibe and making them even catchier than the rest of the album.
To make a long story short, this record is for all those who like their Death Metal the old-school way – straight, raw, and ugly. On the other hand, if your taste is limited to so-called “Melodic Death Metal” bands such as (newer) In Flames or Soilwork, chances are this isn’t a record to wet your (baggy) pants over.