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Coulda, woulda, shoulda... - 80%

robotiq, April 8th, 2021

Death metal has a fractious relationship with melody. To most outsiders, the idea of death metal being 'melodic' is ridiculous. Insiders know otherwise. The genre has flirted with melody for most of its adult life. Songs like Autopsy's "Torn from the Womb" and Dismember's "Override of the Overture" featured melodic solos that took the listener on a journey (in a way that random note squeals could not). Albums like "Heartwork" and "Terminal Spirit Disease" expanded on these melodic ideas, paving the way for the later 'melodeath' sound of In Flames and Dark Tranquillity. Those latter bands eschewed most death metal tropes except the growling vocals, and took more from traditional heavy metal. Records like “The Jester Race” or “The Gallery” are a severance from so-called ‘real’ death metal, for better or worse.

Blending real death metal with traditional heavy metal is more difficult. A wide aesthetic and musical gulf exists between the two genres. Traditional heavy metal uses big choruses, soaring vocals and belongs in the stadium. Death metal is dark, earthy, claustrophobic and belongs in the basement. Mi’gauss, the focus of this review, combined both styles but emphasised the death metal. Remember those debut Amorphis and Necrophobic albums? They are a good starting point for appraising “Open Season”. Both Amorphis and Necrophobic (along with God Macabre and various others) enhanced the atmosphere using melody. Mi'gauss go one step further. They let the melodies roam free. The melody isn’t confined to solos or mini-leads, but is woven into the fabric of the songs. Fans of Iron Maiden will recognise this approach, but it comes from older bands like Thin Lizzy and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Remember the melodic riff that drives the chorus of "The Boys are Back in Town"? Mi'gauss performs equivalent tricks here while keeping the heaviness and nastiness of death metal. This is quite a feat.

The riffing is the best thing about this album. Songs like "Open Fire" contain some of the most meticulous, joyful riffing you will ever hear in death metal. The guitar tone is perfect. It sounds as ‘old school' as records like "The Winterlong" and "The Karelian Isthmus", but also sounds clear and fresh. There is plenty of variation within these songs; occasional brutal riffs from the US death metal tradition (e.g. "Forced Way of Thought"), occasional melancholic slower sections (like the beginning of "Akamon"). Some of the melodies grow into full-blown stadium rock solos. The fluid, wholesome climax of "Within the Mist (Blizzard of Fyock)" is almost like their “Freebird”. It is a superb way to round out the album. The vocals deserve a mention too. This guy has a deep, gruff, powerful delivery, taking the best elements from early Amorphis and early Paradise Lost. So much of this album is old school death metal heaven.

The drumming is the weak link. There is a minor issue with the cymbals. They sound uniform and lifeless. The production might have allowed them to rattle and resonate to match the organic guitar tone. There is a more significant issue with the execution. The drummer sounds sloppy and uncontrolled on much of the album. Listen to the blasting sections on songs like "Meshpeshawa Poc". Those blasts are misaligned. This misalignment negates the momentum and stifles the atmosphere. It is off-putting once you’ve noticed it, and then it gnaws away into your brain and spoils the death metal fever dream. This kind of haphazard drumming suits the likes of Blasphemy and Sarcófago, where sloppiness is part of the charm. It doesn’t suit a band as subtle, controlled and intricate as Mi’gauss.

“Open Season” is one of the brightest ever blends of old school death metal and traditional heavy metal. Fans of complex, smart, progressive bands like The Chasm, Deceased and StarGazer will be interested in hearing this album. I cannot help thinking how good it would sound with someone like King Fowley, Fred Estby or Adrian Erlandsson behind the kit. With more solidity, this might have cracked into my top ten death metal albums of all time. There is genius in Mi'gauss, but that genius has been curtailed. Perhaps they could have solved this problem if they had stayed together and released another album. We will never know.