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Not being much of a fan of death metal anymore, I love finding death metal bands whose styles are a little bit outside the norm. Texas’s Vex definitely fits that description - right from the first few notes of their debut Thanatopsis it’s obvious these guys are trying to forge their own path. Production-wise, Thanatopsis almost sounds more like a black metal album with a rather subdued, decayed guitar sound, and the actual riffing often eschews brutality in favor of undulating, layered harmonies and tremolo riffs. With a sound that varies from melodic to brutal to sometimes almost doomy, Vex is musically one of the most interesting death metal bands I’ve come across lately.
Unfortunately, the vocals don’t hold up their end of the deal. The raspy, higher-pitched delivery doesn’t really blend too well with the music texturally or rhythmically, and since the vocals are mixed pretty high they’re difficult to ignore. Thanatopsis ends up being a pretty good album despite that flaw, but during the lengthy instrumental portions I often found myself wondering what these guys would sound like with a different style of vocals at the helm. With such amazing songwriting and captivating riffing going on in the background, it’s a shame that the vocals detract from what’s going on musically.
Still, Vex is obviously a band to have on your radar and Thanatopsis is an excellent listen. With an album that’s as varied and captivating musically as this one, with its multifaceted and often unpredictable riffing, it’s crazy imagining what they’ll put out after another year or two of honing their craft.
(Originally written for Musical Warfare)
As a genre is first "born" out of protoplasmic soup of another it has a tendency to begin to branch off into a wide variety of directions all linked together by a stronger over-arching idea. In death metal this resulted in not only a deluge of sub-genres and regional approaches but also varied compositional one that when combined, left the listener with something that might seem aesthetically "similar" yet beneath said surface meant a far more varied animal. However, these can have their downsides and the controversial genre of "melodic death metal" was perhaps the worst victim. Starting out as both a predecessor to the 90's black metal to come and a re-uniting of usually-Scandinavian death metal with ideas from bands such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, many of its progenitors and innumerable newcomers quickly watered it down into a poorly done rehash of the traditional, power, and thrash metal that preceded it. Fortunately, this up and coming Texan band attempt to re-capture this approach's former glory, side-stepping the influence of sell-out works such as Heartwork and Slaughter of the Soul upon a stillborn genre.
In Vex's music we find a varied heritage - Dissection, Iron Maiden, Metallica, folk and progressive rock. Organized into long and graceful streams of melody, Thanatopsis encapsulates whole generation's worth of metallic melodic sensibility into a single distinctive voice all of its own. Songs do not rely as much upon lower-register precision rhythm playing as most American style death metal, opting for a noticeable emphasis on lead-rhythm riffs. While they may feel rather light and airy, they still retain their drive through their unrelenting usually tremolo-powered surging, resulting in a highly streamlined listen. To avoid becoming simply passing the user by with no sense of contrasting conflict however, Vex carefully use various techniques such as thrash-style muted strum blitzkriegs, spacious dirge-like ("doom") riffs and acoustic segments to moderate a song's development, keeping these displays light in relation to the song as a whole, thus avoiding merely becoming a showboating of personal influences.
Songs are structured in a somewhat narrative manner, building their sense of the dramatic and the intense through melody in a way similar to bands such as Maleficarum (Ita) and earlier At The Gates. They often begin with simple riffs but through their powerful sense of motion, these are enhanced through layers of textural elaboration. Through stacking these progressively strengthening melodies upon one another a linear if powerful sense of both atmosphere and direction arises, also holistic in its ability to capture and continue the same sense of force whether it be through death/black style lead rhythm or delicately picked traditional metal guitar flourish. Although it does not have the same multi-directional orchestration of masterpieces such as The Red in the Sky is Ours or Cenotaph's Sailing Our Black Oceans, its powerful sense of focus and concise songwriting give it a comparable feel of the hallowed and a gravitas in a more straight-ahead manner.
The guitar work is eloquent as the best of NWOBHM and its numerous direct descendants but interprets and integrates these lessons into rigid, militant expressions of death/black riffing strength. Bass follows behind subtly, lacing subtly enriching low-register commentary throughout songs like a librarian carefully re-archiving a precious collection. Drumming charges behind all of this doggedly, stripped down to free up space for melodic development, deftly breaking its sometimes blasting rhythms with certain cymbal/tom hits at times for a bit of additional punch. Vocals are a harsh black metal howl, occupying the mid-high registers and carefully matching the levels of intensity surrounding it in both scream duration and precise enunciation.
Reaching far back to the obscured roots of the genre, Vex use elongated melodies and careful usage of technique to both re-captures the lost spirit of "melodic death metal" and help to find the beleaguered subgenre a new voice. Thanatopsis closes the divide between classic extreme metal and the melodic metal forms it separated from, side-stepping the legions of failed NWOBHM and late 80's thrash cover bands with harsh vocals "melodeath" is mostly composed of. While some may find its lack of lower-end crush and rather linear songwriting to be off-putting, those able to appreciate this forgotten approach to death metal will discover a diamond in the rough that captures the promise of a style that never really was. Although they still have a fair share of distance to cover before the full potential of their capability can be realized, this debut will join the works of acts such as Miscreant (Swe), The Chasm, and Eucharist (Swe) as great examples of death metal's lesser known nature.
So, if a picture is worth a thousand words, I rather like the picture Vex puts out there on the cover to their full-length Thanatopsis. A skull, yellowed in decay, sitting before an old rock with what appears to be a rune carved upon its archaic surface. I like to think these two inanimate objects hold conversations with one another...certainly the cranium looks happy, as if the tall, grassy leaves were tickling it in the wind. That said, it doesn't offer even a hint of what the actual music will sound like, so when you begin to listen to the album, you might be quite surprised to discover that Vex are some long obscured treasure of progressive, moody melodic death/black/thrash metal that seems rather uncanny hailing from Texas, one of the brutal death capitals of the States.
Yes, there is something understated and atypical about Thanatopsis, though the individual components are hardly unique: well plucked, darkly twined melodic rhythms racing across a tinny backdrop of drums. Blunt and bloodied vocals. Thrashing, warlike bursts of muted thrash chords that soon surge into ghastly death metal sequences. An atmospheric sheen to some of the better guitars that becomes mildly reminiscent of Swedish melodic death or black metal acts. Most importantly, though, Vex understand how to cycle through interesting riffs that complement the grim but uplifting pallor of the album packaging. They don't always strike gold with every pattern of notes, but for a band to encapsulate such a pure atmosphere straight through the core instrumentation is an ability to envy, and this is one of those albums where a band chops up a bunch of constituent elements like vegetables, throws them into the same side dish, and comes out with something fresh tasting.
There are seven tracks here, beginning with the band's namesake "Thanatopsis", which might mislead the listener into thinking the band is instrumental, since a 6 minute composition with few leads or solos and no vocals is hardly common. To compensate, it is one of the most meandering of the experiences here, with clear elements of progressive influence in the bass lines. Better yet is "Eyes of Wrath", teasing with a surge of melodic black metal before it levels off into somber, engrossing riffs, prominent and interesting bass work, and dour vocals. "Era of Delusion" arrives like a beautiful mix of Night in Gales or Dark Tranquillity styled death metal, every riff worth hearing despite the rather desperate and downtrodden emotions inspired; "Apocalyptic Dream" transforms from warlike Metallica thrash chugging to an almost Viking swagger that recalls old Unleashed. The eight minute finale "The Past is Frozen" is loaded with lavish yet sparse, clean guitar sequences through which heavier riffs often cascade, and though it does at times feel the most scattershot of the pieces, it's one of the most intriguing.
Thanatopsis is not always the smoothest of rides, and at times some of the transitions feel like the band are attempting to branch into too diverse of a sound all at once; as if a few riffs were latched onto to others where it doesn't best serve the whole of the songs. However, the majority of the individual guitars are promising, and overall, I really like the vibe the band are churning out, more sobering than blazing, borne more of focus than virtuosity. Vex have been around for 12 years, so one can't exactly call them new kids on the block, though their prior output was limited to a small series of demos and a recent split with local Texas death/doom act Divine Eve, but there is something about this debut that I think might appeal to fans of other moody US beasts like Cobalt, Wolves in the Throne Room, or Agalloch, even though the styles do not always match up (Vex is also less boring in general). Here we've got something well off the beaten path, even though the stones paving said path have been lifted from more frequently traveled concourses.