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A real gender-bender. - 81%

RondofedoR, May 10th, 2014

Just when you thought it was safe to look at a Lord Mantis cover…

…the four gents of said blackened sludge outfit are back with Death Mask, a grueling ode to visceral wickedness and the successor to their stunningly intense sophomore album Pervertor, a recording that featured the grotesque black-and-white cover artwork of the brilliant Justin Bartlett.

Featuring some semblance of a dismembered Jesus Christ feeding acolytes with His exposed entrails, Pervertor’s cover was a horrifically well-done primer for the tunes soon to follow. With Death Mask, the band went with the notorious Wrest, also known as Jef Whitehead, the man responsible for black metal act Leviathan and a member of the black metal super-group Twilight. On the cover one can find a buxom green hermaphrodite – likely dead – bloodied, bounded, and scarred with a noose emerging cobra-like from a wrist, centered upon a fecal-colored backdrop. And, of course, the he-she is wearing a non-traditional death mask of sorts. It’s a strange and beautifully painted cover, indeed, and presumably a rather offensive cover for the sensitive-at-heart.

After so many listens of Death Mask, whether the cover actually works as a visual manifestation of the album’s sound and direction or not is, well, tough to say as the cover’s most arresting detail – the character’s intersex nature – is more perplexing than it is shocking. The record is dark and meaty, but it’s certainly not as flaccid as the cover may otherwise suggest. Thankfully, the music on hand is far less ambiguous. Picking up where Pervertor left off, Death Mask delivers moments of exceptional wretchedness buoyed by a hypnotic concussive assault.

The opener “Body Choke” takes its sweet time – nearly nine minutes of sweetness – mashing Bill Bumgardner’s drums of doom with precision-picked guitars, a warbling bass tone, and the deranged cries of Charlie Fell. Similar to his work with sludge-noise deviants Indian, Bumgardner’s impact is never not felt, and it’s his draining and forceful rhythms that instill Lord Mantis’ black metal with so much of its clawing might. The album-titled second track is much quicker, thrashing blackly, but also employs nasty grooves that are highlighted by Fell’s bass-playing and his ever-improving vocals that have begun to take on the volatile style of Anaal Nathrakh.

From a production standpoint Death Mask sounds gargantuan. Pervertor had a slightly darker tint to its atmosphere, but Death Mask is no bar of soap. The timbre is still grimy and fetid, still a challenging listen for the uninitiated. Likewise there feels to be a slight dip in song-writing from Pervertor, a record that housed more than its share of world killers. A song like “Possession Prayer” from Death Mask features an industrialized edge, but all of its rising tension never really amounts to much; the same can be said for the track “Coil.” And the unnerving yet arbitrary piano interlude, “You Will Gag for the Fix,” it plays like closing credits to a horror film; well-done but not exactly unnerving. And although there are a few lapses throughout Death Mask, Lord Mantis are still capable of writing songs like “Negative Birth” or the record’s beastly closer “Three Crosses,” and you can’t help but be stricken by its demented fusion of pulsing sludge, melancholic doom, and then by its transformation into brooding and peppery black metal.

The end result is Lord Mantis proving that they’re not only skilled at sludge and black metal, but that doom, equally, never dies. Death Mask is an abrasive genre-mix that’s not quite as shocking or as memorable as its predecessor, but it’s satisfying to hear these musicians push themselves even further from the light.

Written for The Metal Observer