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Slugathor were certainly no slouches on their debut album Unleashing the Slugathron. On that release, the Finnish death metallers managed to compile the stock ingredients of old school death metal together and coat the whole affair with more than enough class and a sense of genuine creativity that resulted in a record that transcended the craftsman-like quality of other modern bands that sit just below the peak of the old-school worshipping death metal heap. On this sophomore release, the band has taken that idiosyncratic approach that oozed through Unleashing... and placed it squarely front-and-center. Luckily for us, Slugathor's particular blend of crushing, riff-driven brutality and haunting atmosphere helped along by just enough melodicism is a joy to behold.
While Circle of Death certainly can't be described as a major departure for the band, there is a noticeable change in the ratio of influences that inform the music on the album. The most prevalent riffing style this time around is a punishing, Bolt Thrower-ish downtuned grind. The more staccato, punky riffs from the first album are almost nowhere to be found and the higher-pitched tremolo sections are less prevalent than before. You know how Bolt Thrower have that tendency to have those long chugging sections that are punctuated with what could be described as triumphant melodic flourishes? Here, Slugathor use a very similar approach but their melodic vocabulary is notably different. Comparisons could be made to the sort of eerie melodies Dismember used so effectively on their early releases. The production on the guitars has taken a turn for the better, too; the mid-range finally gets the emphasis it needs in order to have the lower-end chugging riffs stand on equal footing with the higher tremolo bits. I can't really understate how perfect that guitar tone is. Combined with riffs of this caliber, the effect is that I'm compelled to keep turning this up louder and louder, something that always serves as an indicator of truly magnificent melding of guitar tone and riffsmanship, in my experience. The riffs, as before, are mostly mid-paced but this time around Slugathor have added a larger helping of slower, death/doom riffs, especially at the beginnings and endings of songs. "Final Ceremony" is a fairly short (mostly) instrumental interlude track that serves as a fantastic showcase for Tommi's proficiency at writing these kinds of riffs. The guitar tone makes these sections just as weighty as the faster bits so despite the relaxed pace these moments bring, they absolutely don't act like the oft-boring ambient filler tracks that one so often finds sprinkled throughout extreme metal albums. Once again, the bass just rumbles along next to the rhythm guitar but as on the debut that's not something that should be complained about as anything else would result in unneeded extravagance at best and a sludgy, indistinct soup of bass tones at worst. Tommi also makes more use of lead guitar throughout the album; there are a few sections that veer into genuine solo territory (see the short yet flawless solo in "Temple of Shadows") but there are also some slow-burning leads that soar out over the rumbling chaos. It's a nice effect and something that would get emphasized further on the band's third and final album.
Once again Axu employs his perfect dual-vocal technique. For those not familiar with the style, the lead vocals are a very low register growl not too dissimilar to the style used by many funeral doom bands. Underneath the growls, for a large percentage of lines delivered, are perfectly executed black metal shrieks. Those shrieks reinforce the album's bleak atmosphere perhaps more than anything else and add some much needed thickness to the upper end of the very bass-heavy mix. The vocal delivery itself consists of low, drawn-out syllables (rather than short, angry barks à la Corpsegrinder) which are just as effective over the album's faster riffs as they are over the doomier sections.
With the shift in focus of the guitar riffing comes a necessary change in Immu's drumming style. Blastbeats are more rare here than on the debut but not entirely absent, either. Most of the drumming isn't too dissimilar to what Andy Whale does in Bolt Thrower: rumbling double bass that follows the chugging guitar pattern with judicious use of snare and cymbals. Fortunately, the overall mix on the drums is more even now than before, meaning the bass drums are much more prominent in the mix. Though nice and even, the drums, at first listen, could be described as being pretty quiet in the overall mix but the more I think about it the more content I become with how they sound. The drums being a bit on the buried side give those mighty guitars room to really throw their weight around and there's no way I'd want anything getting in the way of these riffs. Immu generally slows things down to a crawl during the doomier sections, as you'd expect, and the fills are more workman-like than showy. The performance is flawless, though, and as on their debut I can't help but think a more technical approach would only detract considerably from the experience.
The most appealing thing about Circle of Death is how the band has retained their knack for writing incredible songs while simultaneously moving away from the more utilitarian riffing of the debut into undeniably atmospheric territory on this second album. Sure, it's not an easy thing to do to glue riffs together end-to-end and have them make sense as a cohesive song, but if anything it's just as difficult to reduce the riff count and drag song lengths out while keeping things interesting (the average song length has gone from about 3:14 on the debut to almost 4:30 on this album, and that's counting two two-minute "interludes"). While some of the punky energy from the debut is missed here, I can't really complain because the overall package is so much more refined and united under the guidance of a better-defined artistic vision this time around. If I wanted fun and punky, I'd just listen to some Nunslaughter or Jungle Rot, anyway. Rather than simply hint at a unique and compelling take on death metal as the band did on their debut, here Slugathor go all out in focusing on exactly that. They would continue to do so on their third and final album, somehow defying logic and honing the edges of their bludgeons to create a masterpiece of crushing death metal that would serve as their ultimate expression of their vision.
f you play Unleashing the Slugathron and Circle of Death back to back, they combine seamlessly. The debut's squeal-lead ending pitch shifted into white noise combines with the squeal lead-flavored noise beginning of Circle of Death. The actual musical part of the album is fired off with a great bellow that effectively sets the mood. The intro track shows off heavy riffs with slow to mid-paced tempo and an odd time signature which clearly indicate where this album differentiates from Unleashing the Slugathron. Now, the odd time signatures aren't very prominently featured; they only show on the two prelude-type tracks. But this exemplifies one difference between the albums. Circle of Death is more thought out and carefully constructed. The approach to songwriting is very different. The songs are very structured and different parts are given a lot of room to breath. A lot of it has to do with the slower and steadier pace. When you're going a hundred miles an hour, it's hard to give the sections of your songs space to showcase themselves, to be memorable.
The songs consist of numerous parts with nare a repetition in sight. Rhythmic and percussive riffing combined with the drums is what the album is built upon. These two elements form the cohesive whole that keeps the songs together even without distinctive sections being repeated. This way of songwriting doesn't lend itself to memorable songs, but rather memorable parts of songs due to the immeasureable catchiness of the riffs. The vocals being more of an atmosphere inducing instrument, rather than being in the lead, just emphasizes this effect. Like the rest of the production on the album, the vocals are low and deep, the sort that fit this kind of mid-paced and rhythm-focused death metal perfectly. There are some high register, black metal screeches on the first tracks courtesy of Sami Hynninen. The odd thing about the vocals is that they don't often follow any sort of a pattern, but since they're mostly there to create the atmosphere rather than to be a lead element, this doesn't distract the listener.
The focus on the album is on the drums and rhythm guitars, the way they mesh together and complement each other. Well, rather the drumming supports the riffs, accentuateing the changes within them with precisely timed hits and fills. There are traces of Obituary in the chugging riffs in some of the mid-paced parts, but more often the crushing, even slightly melodic riffs at the slower sections make one think of Bolt Thrower, if one is looking for comparison. However, on Circle of Death, the band clearly has a sound of their own, especially with the well-placed and fluid shifts between the sections with clearly different tempos. Two songs differentiate themselves from the norm of the album. First off is Journey into Oblivion with its groove and rather off-beat solo in the beginning. The off-beatness is due to the fact that it is played by a guest guitarist. The song does feature the fast and obliterating parts, but the mid-paced riffs are groovy instead of crushing as is the case with the rest of the album. The other song is the highlight of the album, Final Ceremony/Temple of Shadows. It is a sign of what was to come with its excellently doomy parts with ominous guitar leads lading the atmosphere heavy with dread and sense of impending fate.
Here in good old Tennessee, I am constantly plagued by bands trying to add me or talk to me under the moniker of "death/doom metal". Most of it turns out to be worthless -core mixed with the ever so slight Black Sabbath or Pentagram influence. I had lost faith in the genre. One day, someone recommended this band to me. I downloaded, expecting another disappointment. Boy, was I wrong.
The first thing I see is the fantastic cover art. No cliche or overproduction here, just a good quality, simple cover. It wasn't like any other death/doom cover I had seen, and it made me all the more curious as to the music inside.
At the start, I was drawn into an ambient void of punishing guitars and airy effects, along with very tasteful drums. Listening to this album put a gradually bigger and bigger smile on my face. I had found the death/doom I had been looking for.
There are a lot of good things in this album. To begin with, we see the guitars expertly played in a style that perfectly complements the atmosphere. There are the palm muted riffs that just screem SOTC-era Deicide, along with the doomy midsections that just ooze sludgy goodness. To complement said musicianship is an expertly blended effects panel. These guys really know how to set up a good atmosphere with their guitar pedals, and there is certainly none of the "drowning in a pool" you hear when one uses too much reverb and delay. The vocals just add to the atmosphere of the album. It's the quintessence of an ethereal death growl- again, the band is obviously experts at effects. Finally, the drums added the final touch to it- they keep you interested with some good underlying rhythms and blasts.... most of the time.
Why did I knock off 11 points? Firstly, I would have loved to hear a bass guitar. There are so many places where I was thinking "Wow, this could make for an interesting opportunity for a bass riff". I'm not certain if there is even a bassist, if he was turned back in the mix, or if it's just my crappy speakers, but in any case it was a definite downturn. Secondly, there were times when the drummer seemed to get either too excited or too lax. I heard some fills where his double-kick was just a bit off rhythm, and in some of the doom riffs it almost sounded like he was just a tiny bit slow. It's easily fixed, and it doesn't really detract too much from the overall sound.
All in all, it was worth the download time. It's a solid death/doom album, and it definately shoves good stuff in the hordes of poser band's faces. I recommend this to anyone who is a fan of creative death metal, or to any die-hard doom fan who is looking to delve their way into death metal.