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Embrace the chaos - 81%

robotiq, May 5th, 2021

I feel sorry for new death metal bands. All the good monikers are taken ('Universally Estranged' doesn't resonate like 'Grave' or 'Autopsy', does it?). All the good logo styles have been used (what is that splurgy mess supposed to be?). More importantly, most of the best musical ideas have been done. There isn't much left to explore in the death metal cosmos. Even the obscure 'cosmic' death metal side has become saturated in recent years. The best option for new bands is to carve a micro-niche and perfect it. Several bands have succeeded at doing this since the genre's heyday. The Chasm were among the first. StarGazer followed. Then came Mefitis. There have been a few more, but the near-misses (e.g., Last Sacrament) outweigh the hits.

Universally Estranged are the latest band to enter this arena. Their debut album, "Reared Up in Spectral Predation", is no ordinary death metal. The dreamlike intro offers a taste of the madness that follows. This album is rooted in the old school, but the band attempt things I've never heard before. The easiest comparisons are with Incantation ("Onward to Golgotha"-era). Universally Estranged have the cavernous, liminal sound at the base of their pyramid. The next layer is probably Finnish death metal, and Demigod in particular. This is audible in the lumbering, super-heavy riffing and the use of melody. The cover-art is also a clear reference to "Slumber of Sullen Eyes" (right down to the chunky italic font).

The magic of this record is in the adornments. These guys play blistering, fast solos and let their melodies run rampant over their riffs, creating a sense of musical chaos. This is bolstered further by the bands biggest innovation; electronic music. No-one, not even Nocturnus, have embraced keyboards and electronics quite like Universally Estranged. The band seem to borrow from the old 'Berlin school' of Krautrock (e.g., Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Michael Hoenig). Throbbing, wave-like, phasing effects appear throughout their songs and in the segues between. These effects are similar to those found on classic albums like "Phaedra" or "Departure from the Northern Wasteland". This gives the band an authentic ‘sci-fi’ feel without them needing to resort to any sci-fi death metal cliches.

The production is (mostly) excellent. The record sounds better at higher volumes and there are plenty of subtle noises and compositional tricks that warrant repeated listens. The guitar tone is thick and rich. The electronics are gorgeous, perhaps they were done on analogue equipment (doubtful, but who knows?). The vocals are deep and guttural, a bit like Tomb Mold. The drumming is great, but I wonder whether they triggered or sampled the kick drums. They sound suspiciously uniform during the double-kick sections (e.g., near the beginning of “A Thing, Oozing In”). These kick drums would have sounded much better if they were less 'even'. This isn’t a major problem because it only shows on the double-kick, which is used sparingly.

Admittedly, "Reared Up in Spectral Predation" is not an easy album to appreciate. The songs are in constant flux and motion, and don't appear to have a centre. This isn't the riff-salad that it first appears. There is structure of a looser kind. As a listener, I’m happy for the band to bluster through the structure because they do so with such exuberance, talent and quirkiness. This record disorientates me in the same way that old Possessed and Voivod records do. The album's short length is a blessing because this disorientation may irritate with longer exposure. Thirty-one minutes is just right. I am fascinated to see if this band continue, and where they might go next. They have carved their niche. Next step, perfect it.