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In a genre defined by its unfettered commitment to extremity, it’s rare for a death metal album to retain its stopping power in the generations following its release. Sure, Scream Bloody Gore and Altars of Madness still earn respect and admiration from contemporary ears (and rightfully so), but they’ve since been trumped in terms of their heaviness and commitment to perversity. A large part of what has made Demilich such an enduring gem is their lack of successor; no artist since has made death metal that sounds quite like them. Even with the twentieth anniversary of its release having occurred earlier this year, Nespithe remains as twisted, puzzling, and frightening as ever. Newcomers may find themselves put off by the unconventional guitarwork and (ahem) distinctive vocals, but there are few metal albums I’ve heard that leave such a lasting impression. Nespithe is death metal for the thinking man, and my only disappointment with the album is that Demilich never chose to make another one.
While most certainly mired within the confines of what we would label as death metal, Demilich took the familiar ingredients of the genre and forged something unmistakably unique with them. Death metal’s trademark aggression is filtered through a labyrinthine network of time signatures and the sort of dissonant harmonies you may expect to mind in modernist classical music. The rhythms ebb and flow with fluidity like a river current, much unlike the straightforward rampage you would expect to hear from a death metal album over twenty years old. Throughout the album, Demilich pays a consistent attention to detail in the shape of the riffs and flow of the composition. Whereas it would be expected even from a left-field band like this one to loosen the reins for a while and offer a taste of simplicity, Demilich doesn’t compromise their sophistication for a second. Even the slower parts of the song structures are complex and rich with detail.
On paper, the guitarwork on Nespithe might be sound like a description of jazz music before anything else, although you wouldn’t think it for a second while listening to music itself. Contrary to most metal, the chords seem to follow the lead guitar, as opposed to the other way around. While there’s certainly a proper method at work with these riffs, they sound liberated from conventional scales, pairing notes that wouldn’t normally go together. The guitars weave riffs that jitter and twitch like thoughts inside the mind of a madman. Demilich’s compositions are elevated greatly by a focus on harmony otherwise alien to most death metal. Tapping into the same pool of insight as neoclassical composers Krzysztof Penderecki and Gyorgy Ligeti, the guitar harmonies are unsettling, as if the two melodic lines are pulling in the opposite directions. Harmony is an exercise in music most often used to make a composition more beautiful or ‘pretty’, but the opposite rings true for Demilich’s use of it on Nespithe.
Although the lasting quality of Demilich’s work is large part in thanks to their inventive guitar work, nothing has contributed so much to the album’s reputation as have the now-infamous vocals of Antti Boman. The album booklet itself proudly proclaims that no effects were used to tweak the vocals, which might only be described as ‘cavernous’. It is typical in death metal for the vocalist to rely on aggression and volume to get his point across; Boman goes for something different entirely. Listeners have described his delivery as anything from a low guttural to a controlled burp, and they wouldn’t be wrong either; the man’s vocals are almost indiscernibly low-pitched, and quiet enough to slip right by an inattentive listener. I don’t know if I’ve heard of another extreme metal vocalist (sparing Silencer’s Nattramn) sparking such division in listeners; Boman demonstrates you don’t necessarily need volume to have presence. Although an acquired taste, the belching gutturals are eerie like nothing else. Where other death metal vocalists retain a shred of their humanity, the vocals here don’t sound like they’re being uttered by a human being. It’s no doubt clichéd to say in a metal review, but the gurgling sounds downright Lovecraftian in scope and atmosphere. The vocals are not intended to be the focus of the listener; instead, it adds a thundering resonance beneath the miasmatic riffs, quiet enough so that they never get in the way of the album’s strongest suit. Lacking entirely in dynamic, Boman’s delivery may be something of a one-trick gimmick, but considering that there’s still nothing else quite like it twenty years after the album’s release, the vocals still stand as a boon to the album’s standing and immortality. It’s a shame that some listeners can’t look past Demilich’s vocal choices, because even if Boman’s vocals lack the range of a more conventional masterpiece, they still come secondary to the otherworldly riffs that consume Nespithe.
Demilich enjoy a production style perfectly-fitted for their work. It sounds organic, pleasantly murky, and just crisp enough to showcase the technical finesse of the riffs themselves. The drum production could have done with a little greater dynamic range, but there’s nothing significant to complain about the way Nespithe has been crafted. In particular, the guitar tone never ceases to impress me; it sounds diseased and dark, as if the amplifiers are bellowing from some hellish underworld. When you imagine how difficult it must have been to properly mix vocals as low and subdued as Boman’s into the mix, it’s pretty impressive to hear them coming out so evenly with the rest of the music. Although the sheer alien illegibility of his vocals make the lyrics’ effect on the music negligible at best, Demilich have penned some pretty schizophrenic poetry to match the album’s monstrous atmosphere, and are well-worth checking out. It’s an album marvellously consistent in tone and style, and though Demilich do not stray any bit from their style, there are plenty of riffs that stand out as being memorable, provided the listener is diligent enough to seek them.
It only took one full-length for Demilich to innovate and, in turn, perfect their brand of alien death metal. In a way, it almost bodes well for the band’s cult of legacy that they never graced listeners with a second album. It’s forced listeners to get the most out of this one album, and left Nespithe a truly ‘one-of-a-kind’ experience. The belching bean-burrito burp vocals will turn some listeners off immediate, but to the uneasily swayed, there is richness and sophistication to enjoy here beyond almost anything else the genre has offered.