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Clinical Incisions - 95%

Ogremace, March 29th, 2009

We humans tend to like things that are simple, or perhaps more accurately like to make things simple, especially when they’re not. Thus we love to attribute trends and movements and ideas to a single person or a certain date even when there’s clear evidence that the situation is much more detailed and much less stark than that attribution would imply. We talk about Death as being the first death metal band, Suffocation as inventing guttural brutality, Slaughter of the Soul or Cowboys from Hell as “killing” death or thrash metal and so on. All such claims contain an element of truth, and not one to be ignored, but they do as much disservice as they do service, obscuring the wealth of an underground music scene, ignoring the other musicians who helped create a sound or blaming a band for the way others were inspired by their music. But, sometimes things are just about as simple as they seem and we can point to one place, one time, one man and say with certainty what it was that he did.

You may be surprised to know that Necrophagist, in 1999, had been a band for 7 years already. Their legacy is inexorably linked with the new millennium, but yes, they began before Nile, before Covenant was released and before Cryptopsy had recorded a single album. And yet in 1999 there really wasn’t a band: Muhammed Suiçmez was the only remaining musician and he took it upon himself to release the album he had been working on for years, recording guitar, bass and vocals and arranging drum tracks through a program. The resulting disc, Onset of Putrefaction, effectively inaugurated the sub-genre of technical death metal as we know it today, a genre which took off to become one of death metal’s biggest and which still bears a striking resemblance to the 35 minutes of material on this record.

Now, there was already, of course, musical proficiency in death metal. Bands like Cynic and Atheist had brought a level of intricacy and musicianship to extreme metal as early as 1989 and the likes of Cryptopsy and Suffocation had continued that trend with their unblinking speed and proliferation of notes and riffs. All four bands, and others, could be credited as progenitors of tech-death. But Onset offered something different, something resembling the virtuosity and musicality of much older kinds of music and which had yet to penetrate the fortress of death metal. Muhammed, first of all, is and was arguably the best and most precise guitarist in death metal and that was the foundation for his method of elevating and advancing the music. There were other great soloists, of course, but not many, and none of them integrated their leads into the music with the lack of restraint Muhammed did. His playing is as reminiscent of a Paganini “perpetual motion” as it is of a death metal song. Whereas earlier technical offerings had mostly simply been quantitative increases in the speed, intricacy and precision of death metal riffing, Necrophagist changed the nature of the riffing itself, focusing on the single lead guitar, a cleaner tone, dynamism and a certain acrobatic quality, enlisting arpeggios and scale runs, hat tips to classical music, in favor of distorted harmonies and rhythmic chugging. It must also be remembered that, while this album didn’t appear until 1999, some of the songs were around as early as 1995, and as such predated Pierced from Within and None So Vile. While it may not have been a totally new kind of music it was a decisive change from the status quo and, most importantly with regards to its legacy and impact, it was very quickly taken up by droves of new musicians as the way to fulfill the promise of heavy music.

In order to make this alteration possible, or perhaps discernable, Muhammed had to present his guitar in a different way, though this difference was, in a sense, a return to the past. Even by the middle ’90’s death metal guitar tone had become robust and thick, full of mid and low values and devoid of the high-strung, trebly, caustic tone that death metal had borrowed, with its own twist, from classic metal. Where Iron Maiden and Judas Priest had had their guitar melodies soar majestically over the rest of the music, death metal had adapted that into a fiendish, acerbic tone to go along with its pummeling. That acidic guitar tone, though, was quickly subsumed into the depths of the heaviness that came to dominate the music. Necrophagist’s cold, clear leads bring to mind the surgeon’s scalpel more than a demon’s bite, and they allow for many more notes to be divulged in a short span as well as a kind of mechanical, digital quickness to be unleashed, something that was, at the time, entirely new. This unique guitar tone, which may have simply been a necessity as much as an attempt to revolutionize, created a new kind of unsettling feeling, one that was more malicious than ghoulish, more shiny than grimy, more technological than primordial, more real than fantasized, and represented the final piece of the innovation that this album was.

What makes this album all the more intriguing is that, despite laying out the tenets of technical death metal, it nonetheless retained a large amount of the character of earlier death metal than the albums that followed it and developed that sound to the extreme form we know today. There are pure burners here, like opener “Foul Body Autopsy” and “Mutilate the Stillborn”, each of which, despite offering up some blistering guitar trimmings, feature crunchy and bombastic riffs and don’t waste any time between them. Then there’s the serpentine “To Breathe in a Casket”, with its rhythmic crescendos, looping buildups and absolutely funky and smashing breakdown riff. It’s so catchy and creepy and unlike anything else I’ve heard before this point – and there’s no solo! All throughout there are great chugging and hammering riffs, something that has been steadily diminished in the field as time has gone by. And the album overall, though it features a guitar sound that as in many ways new, still displays some of the dirty, crunchy, fuzzy sound that has certainly been lost since then. Indeed, this album’s follow up, 2003’s Epitaph, had not a trace of that tone which once defined death metal. Though that album has, in the time since, come to be the more praised and appreciated – as well as loathed – for its complete and unflinching devotion to fingering and virtuosity, and of course for the excellent quality of its music, this album has always had more charm, more warmth and that kind of home-cooked satisfaction that comes from being entrenched in the grinding confines of death metal tonality. For better or worse, tech-death blew right past this confluence of events in search of the pinnacle of clinical hygenics and precision.

Still, Muhammed’s strength is undeniably in the absurd and amazing portions of the album where he let loose all the prodigious skill available to him. Of the eight songs here five have impressive and daunting solos, three of which are simply monumental. “Culinary Hyperversity”, in part due to its necrophagic lyrics, might be the creepiest song on the album, an example of a surgical sound and culinary theme converging perfectly. The song is built on quirky and abrupt guitar licks dispersed through the riffing and climaxes in a terrifying solo, the immaculate cleanliness of which conjures up the same polished barbarism as the rest of the effort. “Advanced Corpse Tumor” is the most imposing song, coming in over five minutes in length and unloading a bevy of lurching riffs and scampering technical sequences before opening up into a two part solo, sweeping through stunted arpeggios before double-timing along with a wonderful and spirited riff underneath, all before the two-thirds mark. Finally, “Fermented Offal Discharge” tears through a series of absolutely frantic riffs, settles on a kind of twitching groove and then builds back up into the most dynamic, diverse and refined solo of the album, consisting of a series of graceful themes underpinned by an evolving riff, then taking off in a succession of agitated, fearful bursts, much like the pleas of a man imploring his captor to spare him a grisly end. These solos, all over one minute in length, really become part of the songs’ compositions and help to develop ideas in and musical traits of those songs, and while they can be disparagingly called “pointless arpeggios” they are, as in a long tradition of music, simply a technical and detailed take on the development of melody. This kind of refinement and thoroughness in melody was nearly non-existent in death metal, which had created its own harmonic language and melodic atmosphere but had not yet turned to face those attributes directly. Muhammed, on the other hand, left the musical content as it were but incorporated just that kind of virtuosic attention, in the process giving us technical death metal.

Of course, as impressive as it is to take on the task of creating an album single handedly, it has its limitations. It would not unreasonable to think, given the group’s sophomore record, that Muhammed would view this album as incomplete or hindered. That second album’s labyrinthine bass lines, diverse drum beats and profusion of counterpoint, not to mention its music-historical references and increased complexity of riff and structure, hint at even greater aspirations from the band’s creative force, and we can surmise that some of that might have made it onto this record given more time and more favorable circumstances. It’s similarly easy to be unimpressed, in general, by the programmed, lifeless drumming, one and the same drum fill in every slot and typically unadventurous bass. But it must be remembered that this album came at a transitional moment, when the rest of the band had left and those who would constitute the revived band were not yet present. Perhaps it was this transitional characteristic that allowed Onset to be a transition for death metal as well, a moment between the established style, which, like it or not, was on it’s way out, and the yet unseen future, full of a musical awareness and desire to refine that had not yet come to the fore. If so, we forgive it its flaws not only for all that it nonetheless did well but also for its spirit of eagerness and strength to focus its energy on one idea, one great idea, even at the cost of some others.

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