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Coffin sans corpse. - 80%

GrizzlyButts, February 22nd, 2019
Written based on this version: 2018, Digital, Pagan Records (Bandcamp)

In facilitating the repose of the souls of their dead Polish black/death commanders Totenmesse assume the role of Charon, ruler of the dreary coast and ferryman unto Hades. Previously ostentatious perpetrators of the black mass now arrive as requiem for the lost and unguided damned, an inspiration beyond the purgatory of existence. Based out of Cracow and with very active members from nearby Tarnów black and death metal scenes Totenmesse formed in 2016 through shared vision between ex-members of Hell United, alongside Massemord and Voidhanger drummer Priest and vocalist Stawrogin (Odraza). This pedigree would have seemingly primed them all for a bout of typical Polish blackened death metal savagery but Totenmesse‘s debut ‘To’ is far too amorphous to be seen as brother to brutality, or past projects. You will instead hear cousin to Odraza‘s avant-garde bent but with a more broadly imaginative vision. Much of this eclectic-but-sensible approach is inspiring though this full-length undoubtedly appears unrelated from song to song until the listener is well acquainted. Totenmesse appear as panacea to the anhedonist extreme metal fan with this energetically stumbling, avant-unpredictable black/death debut.

Apt enough reviewers have already mentioned the mild stylistic connections between ‘Aura’ / ‘Soma’ era Bölzer and the guitar work on ‘To’ (see: “Istne gówno duszą cuchnie”) but I would additionally suggest hints of Furia as well as the bestial roar of Azarath as occasional intrusions of melody and brutality. Dissonant, tribalistic, heroic, and macabre in equal parts there is some inherent hallucinatory property to the listening experience offered by ‘To’; A dance of avant-dissonant guitar work in the form of explosively presented grand riffs should remind folks of Ascension’s ‘Under Ether’ slightly as the album progresses. The cover of King Crimson‘s “21st Century Schizoid Man” is both curio and bungle in my mind, though. I see the value of it and how this might offer a reasonable look at influence but it doesn’t work on any other level (see: Megadeth doing “I Ain’t Superstitious” circa 1986). The cover song also completely stomps out the momentum of the record and at the very least it should be the end of Side B rather than A. The rest of tracklist is flawless in its progression of increasing experimental psychosis that occasionally verges on progressive sludge metal in terms of composition (see: “Łuna”) but retains a core avant-garde black metal / atmospheric death metal collaboration.

Though I found ‘To’ consistently arresting as a slightly flawed full listen, it goes places before it ends. Totenmesse doesn’t entirely feel like a continuation of Odraza and offers more than a new coat of paint on that style but, the semblance is likely unavoidable for folks dedicated to the Polish extreme metal map. With little previous knowledge of former progeny (save for Voidhanger, who rule) I descended upon ‘To’ as a rabid nazgûl intent on the preciously inventive guitar work to behold. I am among the flock of folks who felt fooled by Bölzer‘s awkward ‘Hero’ and its inability to capitalize on the bands original stylistic development and ‘To’ serves as moderate and fitting surrogate for that style of inspirational music; This was merely the impetus for much closer and fairly frequent listens to ‘To’, it develops its own personality as it becomes familiar as a piece.

There was a personal ‘cut-off’ point in my exploration of Totenmesse‘s debut and to be frank it came from the placement (not the presence) of the cover song. With the momentum sapped and the crawl of the record split in half, I found myself wanting to move onto other things after the first throng of three tracks after about ten full listens over the space of about four weeks. That ‘To’ stands out in a sea of massively impressive and professional debut full-lengths in 2018 is more or less my endorsement for it. It is a fantastic album with a few easily overlooked flaws and I can recommend it with some moderate enthusiasm aimed at fans of avant-garde black metal. For preview I would suggest starting with the opener “Pusty dzwon” and jumping over to “Kaiser Tot” for a good look at the many faces of Totenmesse.