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Strung up by the guts of the moon - 94%

iamntbatman, December 2nd, 2014

Finnish death metal has seen something of a mixed-bag renaissance in recent times. Some practitioners favor revisiting classic Finnish sounds of old, while others incorporate more Swedish reference points and others still haul in container ships full of sludgy darkness of the finest Incantation pedigree, a sound which as we all know works fairly well in conjunction with the classic Finndeath hammer of the apocalypse death metal aesthetic. The results have of course been mixed; bands like Slugathor and their heirs Desecresy have done great things, Corpsessed and similar bands have put out serviceable if somewhat unexciting releases in recent history, and then you've got your Lie In Ruinses of the world, who release twenty-hour snoozefests where they play every song twice for no reason in true Vital Remains tradition.

While all of this stuff had my NWN! special issue black panties pretty wet a couple of years ago, only a handful of it has really made any lasting impression on me. To be completely frank, I remember sort of liking Swallowed's own 2010 EP, but then again I can't really remember a whole hell of a lot about it. It was dark, I think slow more often than not, and was probably pretty cavernous. So, when I heard the band was finally putting out a full length, I had a brief glimmer of excitement before I realized that I couldn't even recall why I liked the band in the first place. Pretty disheartening. But then...THEN...I saw Lunarterial's cover art, and heard the name of the album. There are probably an infinite number of song and album titles in death metal especially that are just mash-ups of two unrelated words because it sounds weirder and more grimdark that way, but hell if there isn't something compelling about this particular bit of wordsmithing. You've got your "lunar", immediately giving you the impression that this is going to be a cosmic, weird, trip of an album (it'd be a pretty stock reference in black metal, but in death metal stuff about moons usually gives me hints of the strange and occult). Then you've got your "arterial," letting you know that the blood and death worship that's so vital to the genre hasn't been forgotten. It's space gore, but not like Wormed or something because that earth-toned, painterly cover art, with some strange, falling, writhing-in-agony figure being glared at by some four-eyed cosmic demon of unimaginable intelligence, power, merciless cruelty but maybe just a hint of disbelief or even empathy (I swear I'm not making this shit up - look at that face!), screams loudly that this will be a decidedly human, organic experience.

And hell if it ain't. The first thing I thought as I gave this an initial spin that I really have no idea what the fuck Swallowed even sound like, because this is nothing like I remembered. This basically sounds like Teitanblood, if Teitanblood were a far, far better band than they are and didn't dick around with all of that silly war metal crap that always gets in the way of their good riffs. There are mainly three modes of expression on this album: insanely unhinged blasting savagery, mid-paced Autopsy-like filthy bits with kind of bouncy, fleshy guitar parts that are mostly used as transitional elements, and then utterly BLACK armageddon doom stomps. I've never heard a death metal band use two notes to conjure so much terror as Swallowed do in "Black Aura." "The longer the note, the more dread" indeed. Yet, throughout the entirety of the running time, no matter how long the song or how much a riff gets repeated, nothing sounds even remotely overlong because every instrument (vocals included) is in full-on "be as expressive as possible all the time" mode for the duration of the album. Riffs get repeated, often even a whole bunch, but nothing really happens twice. Really the only band I know of who can cram that much soul into every ounce of a death metal performance are Autopsy themselves.

It really is every aspect of the instrumentation that has this magic about it, too. The drums are just something else - the performance manages to keep perfect time while also sort of never stopping playing a fill. Don't get me wrong, this isn't some hyperactive Mastodon drum wank bullshit. The drummer, named - wait for it - Ville, just doesn't know how to not make drums sound awesome and unsettling at all times. The bass sounds like it could shift mountains with every note but not with some grinding efficiency but rather with the brute force of nature carried out by some monstrously huge slimy blob of a beast that shifts mountains just because it's way bigger than mountains and it can't step over them because it hasn't got any legs. The guitars are tuned lower than the inmost circles of hell, but that's not as much of a factor as you'd think. There's not really any chugging at all on this album. The riffs are either freak-out tremolo madness, or unmuted powerchords that trudge on and over you, bearing down with the sheer weight of sustain and apocalyptic intensity rather than low-end palm-muted bludgeoning (though there are touches of that, at a volcanic giant's pace, sometimes). I swear some parts of the gigantic 25-minute closing track "Libations" even sort of sound like Sleep's Dopesmoker, if somehow you extracted every microgram of fun out of it and left only the nightmare remains of the worst trip ever, and placed them precisely at the end of time. The lead guitar has all the subtlety and grace of Kerry King, but sounds really intensely informed by drugs and the 1970's. Oftentimes I'm annoyed by death metal bands doing these sorts of psychedelic excursions (lookin' at you, Morbus Chron!) but it just plain works here, especially as the album comes to a close and a giant effects pedal board is abused in the most unholy of ways and the music crumbles to absolutely devastating chaos of the highest quality.

Here I am rambling on and on about the instrumentation and I haven't even mentioned the shockingly fantastic vocals. Again, I've gotta reference Autopsy. You know how Reifert has his signature style but instead of just growling out the lines and largely letting the pacing of the syllables carry the artistry, as many death metal vocalists do, he varies the tone of his voice nearly constantly for maximum theatricality? Well, these guys do that, too. It's really an inspired performance and one of my favorites in recent memory, nearly as good as that on Cultes des Ghoules' Henbane. Mostly using a highly echoed kind of higher growl/lower rasp not unlike the vocals used by the aforementioned Teitanblood, they're just plain sopping with viscera and horror throughout this whole thing. Pure drama and inhuman terror, where lines are just as likely to end in a ghastly shriek as they are to sputter off into a hissed whisper. I can't really imagine a better narration for the madness-made-music of Lunarterial.

I really can't overstate how blown away I was by the quality of this album. Forget all that paint-by-numbers Incantation-meets-Purtenance nonsense and give this a whirl because it's pretty much perfectly distilled dread and one of my surprise favorites of the year. In fact, I'm going to set my self up for (hopefully) more pleasant surprises by writing this off as some sort of fluke stroke of genius that stands no chance of being repeated. That way, I'll be just as impressed when they do release a follow-up to this astonishingly expressive slab of unfettered darkness.