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After the lukewarm “Annihilation Of the Wicked” Nile signed to Nuclear Blast Records. To say that the resultant album didn’t meet expectations would be an understatement. Whereas up to “In Their Darkened Shrines” the band had continually refined and honed its sound, here they are seemingly on autopilot. The previous album already toned down the Egyptian segues, but here they are virtually absent outside of the intro and the obligatory instrumental track. “Ithyphallic” is a lesser version of “Annihilation Of the Wicked” with all the shortcomings and defects that entails. Perfunctory would be an adequate descriptor for Nile’s Nuclear Blast debut - unremarkable would be another.

The increased vocal presence of lead guitarist (and studio bass guitarist) Dallas Toler-Wade isn’t the single detriment to this record, but certainly its most audible. Sanders’ indecipherably low grunt is heard only far and few times, the revered three-way vocal interaction of the past is traded in for a rather bland and stock vocal performance by lead guitarist Dallas Toler-Wade that is similar to George Fisher era Cannibal Corpse. It was apparent that after five albums the Nile sound was losing steam. Consistent to a fault this is the first of their records to reek of process and sound formulaic. That isn’t to say that “Ithyphallic” is actively bad, it just is too rigorous in its adherence to the established Nile sound, and the lack of atmospheric segues and Egyptian interludes only exposes that critical weakness further. Despite appearances “Ithyphallic” is actually a worthwhile record, but far from Nile’s best, and not exactly its most inspired sounding.

It is here that Nile starts its tendency to stretch out its song material for longer than is necessary, or wanted. ‘What Can Be Safely Written’ is in essence a 4-5 minutes long that is needlessly stretched out to almost 9 minutes. The song has a few memorable slow breaks, and the leads/solos are among the better in the band’s catalogue – but even then, the song is just too long for its own good. Thankfully it is only one of two instances wherein this happens. It would only become truly problematic on the successor to this record. The record stays enjoyable until the arrival of the dull mid-album dirge ‘Eat Of the Dead’, which is far from a return to the eerie death/doom trudge of the classic ‘Sarcophagus’. It is also the first track to have vocal contributions from founder Karl Sanders. What that track lacked in personality and power ‘Laying Fire Upon Apep’ has in spades, and its short running time works wonders for its effectiveness. Only the instrumental track ‘The Infinity Of Stone’ stands out because of how different it is from past instrumentals with its acoustic guitars and ethnic percussion. ‘Even the Gods Must Die’ is a gargantuan composition in tradition of ‘Unas, Slayer Of the Gods’ – and its opening is one of the better pieces the band has penned over the years, even though the song doesn’t live up to its monumental opening. While a lesser Nile is still better than most at their prime none of the material is really exceptional in any meaningful way.

Nile-BandThe cards are stacked against “Ithyphallic” in a number of departments, most notably the artwork. We are far way from the wonderful Wes Benscoter artwork of the preceding records. “Ithyphallic” has artwork from Davide Nadalin, and it is grainy, dark and flat out ugly. It is a defect that much of the latter-day Seth Siro Anton works also suffer from. It is a mystery how he was able to commission any more of his work after this debacle. Imagine what this record could have looked like had it been graced by one of the canvasses of renowned artists Andreas Marschall, Jean Pascal Fournier, Mariusz Gandzel, Jowita Kamińska or Uwe Jarling – or one of contemporary digital artists of the day like Anthony Clarkson, Björn Gooßes, Jacek Wiśniewski, Matthias Norén, Dave McKean or George Prasinis. Coupled with the formulaic approach to the songwriting and the abolition of the superb three-way vocal interaction that adorned its early era output it leaves the record a mere shell of what it ought to be, and should have been. No amount of soul-wrenching solos, ethnic instrumentation and percussive propulsion can hide that this band had written far stronger material in the not too distant past. The record continues the stagnation that first surfaced on the so-so “Annihilation Of the Wicked”.

It is reliable and sturdy, but it doesn’t possess the compositional scope, the zest and the sheer hunger and aspiration to greatness that made predecessors “In Their Darkened Shrines” and “Black Seeds Of Vengeance” so memorable in the long run. The album is all about efficiency, and just like the typical intro is merged into the first song, there was no bass guitarist present for these recordings. Instead Sanders and Toler-Wade shared bass guitar duties in the studio when the album was being recorded. The performances of each member is top notch, and the recording by Neil Kernon was the best Nile experienced up to that point. The session was engineered by long-time producer Bob Moore at Sound Lab in South Carolina, and Kernon ensures that the band lives up to its mammoth source of inspiration. Moore was only responsible for the drum tuning for these sessions. On the whole “Ithyphallic” lacks the songwriting character and vitality of any of the band’s preceding records. The flagrant mishandling of the lay-out is another strike against what should have been a favorable big label debut. “Ithyphallic” is a mixed bag in terms of songwriting, and while it was the most pristine and professionally produced of Nile’s records up to that point, it was also its most generic.

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The second Decrepit Birth record is where the band finally decided to capitalize on the instrumental skill of its (now solidified) membership. Where the preceding album was a lovenote to Deeds Of Flesh and “Despise the Sun” era Suffocation; here lead guitarist Matt Sotelo plundered the catalog of Atheist, Cemetery, Death, latter day Pestilence and Watchtower in what can be charitably called one of the biggest about-face turns in death metal in recent memory. Not only is “Diminishing Between Worlds” more musical and technical than “…And Time Begins” – it is also the first where the band actually writes recognizable songs. Marred in the mastering process with a too low volume (which was duly rectified in later pressings) it became a breakthrough record for the band.  After the album’s promotional campaign Decrepit Birth would depart from Unique Leader to sign with German conglomerate Nuclear Blast Records, along with a host of other similar bands.

decrepit_birthDecrepit Birth’s transformation into a more musically refined and technically accomplished outfit was a welcome change from the soulless drab of its unremarkable debut. At least in part “Diminishing Between Worlds” initiated a movement within the California scene that had previously plain brutal (and uninteresting at that) death metal acts following in its footsteps in surprising numbers. Even established institutions as Deeds Of Flesh, Severed Savior and Vile were moving away from their patented sounds to pick up on the success of this album. Most notable from the debut is the increased influence from the likes of formative technical (death) metal acts Atheist, Death, post-“Consuming Impulse” Pestilence, Theory In Practice and Watchtower. For the first time Sotelo decided to play leads and solos, something he categorically refused to do on “…And Time Begins”. The songs are much more deliberately paced, and the band even attempts to add atmosphere to some of the more ambitious songs. That some of the songs are filled to the brim with ideas was to be expected, as was the fact that the execution is sometimes lacking. At least the band was attempting to infuse some life into the established (and by this point, tired and banal) California death metal sound.

It wouldn’t be too far off to say that “Diminishing Between Worlds” has Decrepit Birth, or composer Matt Sotelo at least, writing actual songs for the first time in his career – and not mere collections of random riffs and seemingly endless blasts. All these songs have a recognizable beginning, middle and end, which is a commendable evolution from the band’s unspectacular debut from a few years prior. The greater prominence and reliance on leads/solos allows for more open compositions, and even the bass guitar has become more important in the overall scope of things. Decrepit Birth is still not an “innovative” or “progressive” band by any stretch of the imagination, as they just moved from one trough to another – and don’t exactly hide from which bands they culled their inspiration this time around. If this sounds like “Testimony Of the Ancients”, “Nespithe” and “Individual Thought Patterns” played ten times faster, that’s exactly what it is. For the first time the band also attempted instrumentals with the tranquil ‘The Enigmatic Form’ and the forgettable outro ‘The Morpheus Oracle’. The former sounds like something off Pestilence’s experimental “Spheres” album, while the latter sounds like one of those latter day Morbid Angel interludes. Decrepit Birth however never get lost in its technicality and instrumental skill side-stepping the rake that has come to define Brain Drill, that other famously technical California death metal band, that they forget to write songs. “Diminishing Between Worlds” is an interesting exploration of the more sophisticated side of the death metal genre, and while modern in construction it at least remembers the tropes and conventions of the classic death metal era that preceded it.

Not all aspects of the band have undergone the same steep transformation. Vocally there is no evolution to speak of. Bill Robinson is still as bog standard and uninteresting as modern day death metal singers come. He is very much reminiscent of Rich Lipscomb (Fleshgrind) that way, although he is tonally closer to Matti Way. Robinson does enunciate better than most of his peers, but his performance reeks of stagnation. Both bass guitarist Derek Boyer and studio musician Tim Yeung had moved on since the debut, and they were replaced by members of local upstarts Odious Mortem later down the the line. Introduced on this record is drummer K.C. Howard, and his debut is as smooth as one could imagine. For the session Sotelo recorded all the bass guitar parts in the studio, while Joel Horner would handle the instrument in the live arena. All three tracks of the “2006 promo” are re-recorded here, along with a fairly redundant retake of the “…And Time Begins” title track, otherwise the record is entirely composed of new material. Once past the re-recorded ‘…And Time Begins’ the album and band regress back to a more primal state, which is surprising considering how musical the first half of the album was. The exception to this being ‘Essence Of Creation’ which merges both sounds flawlessly. In fact ‘Essence Of Creation’ is one of the greatest tracks on this outing, along with ‘Reflection Of Emotions’ and ‘Through Alchemy Bound Eternal’.

The hyperbolic fan reaction was understandable as California death metal never was the most interesting variation of the genre, but to call Decrepit Birth “progressive” and “innovative” is just intellectually dishonest. It should be expected that bands get better and more musical as they get older, it shouldn’t be treated as some unexpected rarity. As such “Diminishing Between Worlds” is a transitional record, and has the band finding its creative voice after a meddling debut. It is one of the better modern day death metal records, and it is not stifled by either a sterile production or a too singleminded focus. While it was pivotal in getting the tired and tiring California death metal sound out of a self-imposed creative rut, the record isn’t nearly the genre-defining masterpiece it is made out to be. No. The foundation of this album was laid by truly adventurous albums from veritable progressive (death) metal units as Atheist, Cynic, latter-day Death, Pestilence, Theory In Practice and Watchtower. Decrepit Birth wrapped all these various influences in a contemporary package, and presented the goods with a crunchy modern sheen. Still, it is hardly the thing to call them progressive for. That’s just being competent, and conscious of the genre’s roots and history. Nothing more, nothing less.

“Diminishing Between Worlds” was mostly a home-recorded affair, much like the band’s 2003 debut. Matt Sotelo laid down rhythm/lead guitars, bass guitar, keyboards and vocals at his own Legion Studio. Drums were recorded at Castle Ultimate Studios with Zack Ohren, who also mixed and mastered the album. For the second time around a Dan Seagrave artwork was commissioned, and like the prior album it was released through California death metal specialist label Unique Leader Records. For the most part it is the end of an era for band and label alike, as Decrepit Birth would sign with major label Nuclear Blast Records, and Unique Leader was just a few years away from transforming into the populist deathcore-centric imprint they are today. “Diminishing Between Worlds” is the only record of its kind in terms of membership, as the Odious Mortem members would all take their leave around 2010-2011 in an exodus reminiscent of mid-era Dying Fetus, or 90s era Malevolent Creation. The duo of Sotelo and Robinson persisted, and eventually wrote a third record for their new label home.

The transition into more melodic and technical territory is handled well, and Decrepit Birth finally started living up to its potential through it. Still all of that doesn’t change that the album is unjustly lavished in hyperbolic praise. Sure, the album is leagues above the troglodyte debut, and vastly better than most of Unique Leader was putting on the market at the time, but records by Death, Pestilence and Theory In Practice that inspired this recording were widely available at the time of this album’s release. Progressive this band never was, just competent and cognizant of the technical (death) metal genre’s formative acts. The transformation Decrepit Birth has gone through is admirable to say the least – but records like these were produced during the 90s as well, which is a fact a lot of fans selectively choose to ignore. The album lasts a quarter of an hour, which is a good fifteen minutes longer than the debut (which barely lasted 30 minutes), and the songs are worked out to a more satisfactory degree. All of this makes it the better Decrepit Birth album, but still not the progressive death metal masterpiece the fandom and media make it out to be. It is competent and well-played, but hardly revolutionary.