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It took a long time for me to bother getting round to listening to Laethora, a side project of Dark Tranquillity guitarist and popular album cover designer Niklas Sundin. Niklas has spent his recent years in Dark Tranquillity sitting through endless keyboards waiting to do a riff. The idea of him trying his hand at old school death metal was initially laughable, but for what it is, this is stupendously close to the real deal.
There is not a trace of Dark Tranquillity here. More surprising, the other guitarist as well as the bassist and drummer are from a female-fronted gothic metal band a million miles away from death metal, and everyone seems to have left their day jobs at the door upon walking into the studio. Fine, it's not really old school, simply death metal baptised in unbridled ferocity and pounding rhythms. Clamouring blast beats and thrashing double bass fall away for enormous doom chords and menacing chugs.
The drums are fairly tight and rattle along with an almost polite mix that allows them to crunch the beats through the guitars but never dominate. Technically, the blast beats on songs like 'To the Point' are really quite awesome and deserve a bit more publicity than they get. Behemoth's Inferno has proved that the mainstream metal audience can be held captive by good drumming as well as guitar riffs and the hook-nosed keyboardist from Bleeding Through. The bass is non-existent and the vocals of no-name Jonatan Nordenstam are sufficiently demanding of the centre of attention, bloodcurdling roars with lots of bile. Gruff, very gruff.
'I As Infernal' and 'Humanae' are certainly highlights for me, both furious outpourings of blast-smothered rage. The brief 'To the Point' is tons of fun, with a big ol' crushing death riff that rhythmically pushes the back of your head into the wall over and over again. The speeding, groovy riff that kicks off 'A.S.K.E' is very infectious and the basis of a tense, modern death metal song. The only problem might be that the band is a fan of breakdowns, which bring the momentum of many of the songs into question. In most places other than this however the songwriting is pretty good, sticking to the recipe of death metal with rare bits of blackened atmosphere creeping in, and with space for some cool ideas to be tried out - such as the heaving bulk of the slower 'Damnable Doctrine.'
It is not the most original album you will buy this year, far from it. There are plenty of moments here where Laethora show their influences. The epic, driving climax of 'Saevio' is almost blackened in the jarring Marduk style chords and apocalyptic mood. The scrawling, furious solo of 'Uproar' is a real Grave moment, and 'The Sightless' has many a glance at Behemoth. A shade of Immolation drenches the whole thing, yet for all this the band cross the line to take-me-seriously by having their own identity. Not something I expected - quality musicianship, yes, entertainment maybe, but personality was not bargained for. Well done. I have a newfound respect for Niklas Sundin's creative capabilities in his middle age.