So what happened to death metal? That’s not meant to be sneering or derisive, but it feels like the most concise way to describe my awe at the myriad of sounds that have recently cropped up in the genre’s orbit. I wasn’t there for the dawn of death metal nearly four decades ago. But the current era seems notable, because in retrospect significant revolutions feel few and far between. Modern death metal is not so far flung from those first few holotype bands and the variations feel miniscule, save for that first big shift when those Swedish bands got in on the game. Maybe because the music itself is such a radical shift from its musical cousins, or because of how far on the fringe all this stuff tends to dwell, or even simply because so many of those original acts are still working. But as it’s matured, death metal’s morphology is stubbornly consistent through its maturation. Hyper-specific themes and accentuations of existing criteria got tacked on here and there, and other genres came in and hacked off bits to utilize for their own devices. But that 40-year line between then and now feels almost brazenly straight in defiance of so many identity crises and mainstream smash-and-grabs that pockmark other heavy music lineages.
Like sharks and crocodiles, maybe this resistance to change is partly why death metal hasn’t gone anywhere and why we aren’t decrying the death of guitar music like all the radio rock dullards. If it works, why mess with it? To deny death metal’s evolutionary mechanisms, though, is to deny Atheist pushing the boundaries on technicality or Entombed futzing with HM-2 pedals. The current trend feels hellbent on airs of sophistication; employing a mastery of theory as well as mechanical ability to wring the maximum amount of emotion from punishing compositions. The lineage going backward is still a straight shot, but steps forward become sleeker and strides more graceful. More synapses than ever are firing in the brute’s frontal cortex, but insofar as it’s a much better way to enjoy someone else’s grey matter getting smashed on a rock.
A few newer death metal bands have really floored me with this new approach. And it happened again this week with Toronto’s Gutvoid and their debut full-length Durance of Lightless Horizons, which released September 2022 through Blood Harvest Records. I loved everything about this record. The aggressive mediations on both astral and terrestrial horror, the dual guitars forming crushing riffs with mournful filigree, even the brush strokes of the oil painting album cover. Even if you can’t call Gutvoid ‘innovative’, beaten to the punch by a handful of peers a few older pioneers, this permutation still stands out as fresh and distinct.
Gutvoid deals in a mid-paced, doom-laden death. In this album there are dirges, such as the evocative opener “Coils of Gas-Hewn Filament”, as well as more allegro tempos best illustrated by “Skeletal Glyph”. But Gutvoid, while capable of breakneck speeds and instrumental showcases, often use their chops to accentuate all the space between the drawn-out downbeats. The effect is akin to highlighting every grit and flaw of the concrete as the compositions slowly drag and grind the listener along soiled pavement, comprising nearly an hour’s worth of delectable punishment. Drummer D.W. Lee and bassist Justin Boehm combine to establish an indefatigable rhythmic backbone sturdy enough to support the absolute truckloads of musical muscle and flesh heaped on by Daniel Bonofiglio’s monstrous vocals and massive guitar. These elements alone create a shambling homunculus capable of terrorizing your speakers. It is the addition of Brendan Dean’s guitar, vacillating between supplementing Bonofiglio’s attack and interlacing the sonic bulldozing with ethereal touches, that creates an entirely separate aura of dread that drenches baser abominations. Altogether, Gutvoid paints a visceral experience both hypnotic and grotesque and all too easy to get lost in.
I can’t really find much negative to say about Durance of Lightless Horizons. The production is great, nothing feels out of place, and if I mentally or physically shifted focus away while listening, it was due less to any self-indulgence on Gutvoid’s part and more with easily this album slipped into my daily listening routine. I will caution that if listeners don’t gel with this album within the first few minutes or if the whole vibe is too highfalutin, there isn’t a whole lot here that would register as a net positive for them by the end of “Wandering Dungeon”. But overall this an album I would confidently evangelize to both metal neophytes and grizzled stalwarts. Or anyone with a passing interest in the morbid. Hell, show it to anyone invested in general guitar fuckery. Proselytizing the good stuff far and wide is how we get more good stuff, and I’ll admit that I’m selfishly interested in keeping this evolutionary offshoot of death metal branching outward. Gutvoid I’m sure would be appreciative, too. But unlike me, they’ve earned all the attention they can get with this one.
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