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What with The Grotesquery, Revolting and Demiurg, Rogga Johansson probably had one of his best years yet last year, with strong showings from all three of those outfits. He was on a few other things two but there's only so much time I can give you Rogga. You spend more time making death metal than I do listening to it, which is saying summat.
Anyway, he's clearly got a taste for concept albums after the nicely grisly tale of fatherhood gone wrong that was The Grotesquery's debut, and Ribspreader's latest is about a couple of murderers or something. Unlike The Grotesquery, which switched atmosphere and approach somewhat depending on the part of the story the listener was at, this is another Rogga album, pure and bloodymindedly simple.
From the very opening riff of 'The Beginning of their End', the album is stubbornly old-school, mid-paced trudging moving to d-beat early '90s carnivorousness. Although actually listening to The Van Murders is no bad experience in itself, with 'The Cleaner and Mr. Filth' and 'Silicon Valley of Death' providing plenty of head nodding mid-paced propulsion, and the hairy as Rogga's balls guitar tone makes 'A Morbid Journey's main riffs nice and claustrophobic, I could never see myself hitting repeat. Instead, I'd be likely to turn to last year's Demiurg album, with its numerous easter eggs and clever ideas, or one of the Revolting albums, which are a far more catchy, fun version of the same simplistic Swedeath formula. By the time 'Sick Minds Think Alike' comes along, the album has faded so far into the background I'm absent-mindedly whistling 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' while it's still playing. 'Going to L.A.' scores a few points for being a pretty interesting guitar and bass instrumental and mixing things up a tad.
Somehow listening to The Van Murders gives me the same feeling as looking at the cover art - all the basic ingredients for old school gore and death have been arranged, along with the forgettable variant on old school Finnish death metal logos, but not with particular care or forethought. Axe murderers, poor lighting, suggestions of cannibalism, zombification and so on, there it is, but so what. Heavy d-beat drumming, double blasts, eerie guitar pinches and morbidly growling vocals, there it is. So what.
I'm apathetic towards this. If you get this instead of taking just a bit more time to look into some lesser known old school death metal bands like Eroded, Morbid Flesh, Graveyard, Lie in Ruins, Zombie RItual, even Vomitory, Torture Division or Slugathor, I can't help you.
Rogga Johansson is not a man known for the tricks up his sleeves. He does death metal. Swedish, old school death metal, to be specific, and with very few exceptions (The 11th Hour, Those Who Bring the Torture and a few more), all of his projects offer only faint steps and deviations on the formula, often as skin deep in variation as those he's collaborating with at the moment. He wears this brutal badge with honor. Many of his works could be seen or heard as approaching the same goal from multiple vectors. He's tried his hands at conceptual work like The Grotesquery or Bloodgut. Carnal, Razorback style fun like Revolting. Primitive acts of pungency like Foreboding or the excellent Putrevore. Then, of course, there is a trio of 'main' bands, those that offer the higher production standards which can run headlong into the other titans of Swedish retro death like Bloodbath or Evocation.
Along with Demiurge and Paganizer, I would consider Ribspreader to occupy that central niche. You already know what it sounds like. Grave, Entombed, Dismember, Unleashed, and the others that shaped generations, with a healthy level of Florida brutality. The guitar tones are as massive as you might expect, and they swerve between choppy, death/thrashing rhythms and dense grooves. Perhaps more so than the previous three albums, The Van Murders really takes its slower strokes to heart, tons of double bass accenting the tank-like force. There are definite parallels here to Bolt Thrower, as in "The Cleaner and Mr. Filth", "Sick Minds Think Alike" and "Slaughterhouse on Wheels", which churn with eternal, warlike force until the more enthusiastic lead breaks, which are well written and almost without exception heighten the experience to something more than the brute minimum.
It's loud, mixed well by Patrick Bruss here in the States. It's also fun, but so weren't the older albums, and a large percentage of what Rogga has recorded. But does Ribspreader do much here to distinguish itself from the pack? I'd argue no. The Van Murders is about the same level of quality as Opus Ribcage or Paganizer's 2009 album Scandinavian Warmachine. Good enough that the diehards of this style will appreciate it for what it is, but Johansson's had a lot of better material out in the past few years (try the Revolting sophomore The Terror Threshold or the past few Demiurg discs). Rogga knows exactly what he's doing here. If there were any living soul who could write the handbook on how to approach authentic, old school Swedish diabolism, it would be him. The audience for The Van Murders is already well in place, and its entertaining for a few spins, but I don't see this as any sort of breakthrough.