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Always one of the unsung heroes of the USDM scene Baltimore, Maryland self-proclaimed dungeon metal stalwarts Pessimist return after a mammoth 16 year hiatus. In that time bandleader Kelly McLauchlin has released an album each with Tampa, Florida second-tiers Unholy Ghost and Diabolic. Suffice to say ‘Keys to the Underworld’ is vastly superior to anything released by both in their brightest of days. This new promo track might not be a return to the glorious days of “Cult Of the Initiated” and “Blood For the Gods” but it showcases what “Slaughtering the Faithful” could have been had it not been marred quite so catastrophically by an unflattering demo-like production and uneven drumming. As a precursor to a proposed album of the same name ‘Keys to the Underworld’ is testament to the imperviousness of the vintage USDM sound. Pessimist will always be Pessimist, irrespective of who is in its ranks or where they are based out of.

These days Pessimist is no longer operating out of Baltimore, Maryland. Since around 2003 McLauchlin moved to the Florida region for his work with Unholy Ghost and Diabolic. Around 2013 Pessimist has relocated to Temecula, California where a new line-up was assembled. ‘Keys to the Underworld’ is a cut dating back to 2014 when original drummer Chris Pernia was still in the band, but he has since been replaced by former Solstice and Malevolent Creation skinsman Alex Marquez. Sitting in for the recordings of this 1-track promo was prolific session drummer Kevin Talley. Rounding out of the revamped line-up are frontman Ivan Alison (who is somewhat reminiscent of original singer Rob Kline, but less serpentine) and former Death and Monstrosity bass guitarist Kelly Conlon. As McLauchlin is the main creative force behind Pessimist it doesn’t matter who is in the ranks, although it’s apparently impossible for the classic Kline-Pernia-McLauchlin trifecta to remain intact long enough to produce a new album. As unfortunate as that may be that Pessimist is still around in 2018 speaks volumes of McLauchlin’s perseverance and his unwillingness to compromise his vision.

Those longing for the days of “Cult Of the Initiated” and “Blood For the Gods” might end up a tad disappointed with ‘Keys to the Underworld’. The track sounds recognizably Pessimist, complete with McLauchlin’s tortured and chaotic soloing, but the track tends to take more after 2002’s “Slaughtering the Faithful”. That in itself isn’t necessarily bad although there’s a point to be made that Pessimist built its fame on the back of its first two albums, sub-classics of American death metal in their own right. Given his set of influences and songwriting approach it’s unbelievable that McLauchlin never ended up in higher profile institutions as Morbid Angel or Vital Remains. “Slaughtering the Faithful” took a lot after Hate Eternal circa “King Of All Kings” and Internecine’s “The Book Of Lambs” whereas “Cult Of the Initiated” and “Blood For the Gods” derived more from Morbid Angel circa “Blessed Are the Sick” and “Covenant”. This solitary new track might not sway fans of the earlier dungeon metal days, but in isolation ‘Keys to the Underworld’ proves that McLauchlin was surrounded by performers of mediocre talent and dubious merit in his association with Unholy Ghost and Diabolic. Evil Kell McLauchlin was never the weak link in any of these constellations. That Diabolic hasn’t released anything substantial since 2010’s alliterative aberration “Excisions Of Exorcisms” shows how irrelevant they have become since the early 2000s.

As these things tend to go Pessimist has restyled their iconic logo for their return. The supposedly improved rendition by Mike Billingsley is far from terrible and the worst thing you could say about it is that it was unnecessary. Why was a revamping of the classic Pessimist logo deemed necessary in the first place? Krisiun never changed their logo (and their output has been sketchy the last decade and a half, or so). Malevolent Creation never changed their logo. Morbid Angel never changed their logo (and they have a history of patchy and indefensible records behind them). At least Billingsley's restyled logo (redundancy notwithtstanding) is leagues better than the average Steve Crow or Mike Majewski creation, which truly are interchangeable. On the plus side, the digital artwork by Mark Cooper for Mindrape Art (who worked earlier with Pennsylvania traditional metal revivalists Lady Beast and more recently Baton Rouge, Louisiana death metal horde Voracious Scourge) is positively the best artwork Pessimist has had since the halcyon days of “Cult Of the Initiated” and “Blood For the Gods”. Is ‘Keys to the Underworld’ the grand return for the once-mighty Pessimist? That is contingent on how this track fits into the accompanying album. What is certain is that it heralds the return of a long-dormant and overlooked USDM force. Pessimist might no longer commandeer to same kind of clout as they once did, especially not with Dying Fetus and Aurora Borealis having long since eclipsed them in prominence, but if ‘Keys to the Underworld’ allows them to reclaim even a fraction of their standing then it served its purpose.

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Seven years after the last Diabolic record the Tampa, Florida blast unit returned with what should have been the second Unholy Ghost album. With three quarters of the original Unholy Ghost line-up accounted for on “Excisions Of Exorcisms” it is a question of why this album sounds more generic and faceless than this band’s prime records. It seems as if the death metal world had passed Diabolic (and its assorted splinter projects) by in the years that they were inactive – and the band’s stubborn insistence on genre purity only pushes them further into irrelevance. What once was a mildly promising outfit is reduced to nothing more than a quickly overlooked footnote. Like the uninspired Joe Petagno painting that functions as its cover “Excisions Of Exorcisms” doesn’t so much break new ground as it stomps relentlessly on things it already did better many years before. This record shouldn’t been released under the Diabolic name.

Diabolic final photo Creative RIPPLES flameloresOnce again co-founder/lead guitarist Brian Malone is absent, and it begs the question why this was released as a Diabolic album in the first place. Taken at facevalue, or considered as an Unholy Ghost release, “Excisions Of Exorcisms” is a futile attempt from a second-tier band to remain relevant. Excessive in its brutality and speed Diabolic is once again on autopilot, and churn out in what graciously can be called the spiritual successor to “Vengeance Ascending”. Whereas Unholy Ghost used reject Diabolic riffs and song construction, this Diabolic (not really, but that’s a different discussion) uses reject Unholy Ghost riffs and song construction. Yes, this sounds exactly as the metaphor implies. Where “Vengeance Ascending” had the dignity of having Malone on board, this record has neither him nor long-time contributor Jerry Mortellaro – resulting in what can be mildly called a disappointment considering the experience of its membership. If nothing else it seems that the band here tried its hardest to copy what little magic they had in their original run, and in doing so rob the record of its spirit. Just looking at this record exudes the sort of familiarity that breeds the blackest of contempt. Every single thing Diabolic used in their original run has been soullessly copied and repurposed.

Culling from all three classic albums that preceded “Excisions Of Exorcisms” is a desperate bid to appeal to the nostalgia factor that has now befell the band. Since the last Diabolic album a lot has changed in the world of death metal, but going by the sound of this album apparently these Tampa residents are oblivious to the obvious. It still very much sounds like Diabolic, or Unholy Ghost – but neither in its prime. The album starts off with a schmaltzy “spooky” intro that very much tries to imitate the band’s first album “Supreme Evil”. Once the intro segues into the title track and from the onset it is rather obvious that this Diabolic is familiar but not exactly on the compositional level that we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. With the absence of Brian Malone comes the lack of pure death metal riffing, and “Excisions Of Exorcisms” is far more thrashy in that regard. Morbid Angel is still the major source of inspiration, but the record is more based in “Altars Of Madness” than, say, “Blessed Are the Sick” or “Covenant”. The chord progressions, riff placement and song structures are more thrashy in comparison to the three classic albums, and the compositional simplicity of “Supreme Evil” is combined with the directness and lack of ornamental grace that defined “Vengeance Ascending”.

The lead – and solo sections are the highlight in this barrage of stock blasts and growls. Guitarist duo Kelly McLauchlin and Jeff Parrish offer up some veritably exciting lead trade-offs, and both clearly have a very individual style of solo’ing. But this alone is not able to redeem this album from its generic songwriting choices and stock performances from the other members. Paul Ouellette (vocals, bass guitar) never was the greatest singer to begin with, but at least here he offers up a passionate, and very much early David Vincent inspired performance. Ouellette’s rasps and barks recall Morbid Angel’s seminal “Altars Of Madness” in terms of intensity and speed. Aantar Lee Coates (drums) is his usual self, and despite the years that have passed since his last label sanctioned outing there is very little evolution in his playing. There was a certain complexity about “Torrential Reign” that is absent here, and as a Diabolic record it spents a too much of its running time reminding us what Diabolic was about, instead of actually being Diabolic. It sounds as if the band realized they were no longer relevant, and thus decided to call upon the listeners’ nostalgia in order to remain appealing. “Excisions Of Exorcism” fails to recapture the magic of the preceding records, and offers nothing exciting in return.

The problem isn’t so much that the band isn’t trying, but that it appears to exist in a creative stasis. The presence of McLauchlin should, theoretically, have led to better riffs and overall song construction. Yet this is Diabolic, and not McLauchlin’s own Pessimist although McLauchlin shares writing credits on all songs, Coates’ creative marks are all over these daft cuts. ‘Entombed’ and ‘Evil In Disguise’ were written by McLauchlin, ‘Fragmented Kreation’ was written by Parrish and ‘Bloodwashed’ was written by Coates. The remainder of the songs were all co-written by these men. Making a serviceable debut here is the late Jeff Parrish, who seemed to be a fitting replacement for the absent Jerry Mortellaro as his riffing style is quite similar, but not quite on the same level. As in the past the lyrics are the usual incoherent Satanic praise, individualism, violence and self-empowerment gibberish mixed with the strangely socio-political themed ‘Evil In Disguise’, which is a red blooded patriotic hymn leveled against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. The track even namechecks the “Supreme Evil” song ‘Ancient Hatred’ in its lyrics. The lyrics aren’t particularly good, or worth remembering – but in general they are a lot better than most underground slam death metal – or most deathcore bands. Also accounted is the typical atmospheric interlude, on this album being the closer track ‘Infernal Darkness’, which was written by producer Juan ‘Punchy’ Gonzalez, and it very much is reminiscent of ‘The Inevitable’ from “Vengeance Ascending” and ‘The Apparition’ from Unholy Ghost’s sole album “Torrential Reign”. Despite the line-up differences and lesser quality material this should have, by all accounts, been an Unholy Ghost product as the links to classic era Diabolic are tangential at the very best.

Given the gaps of inactivity, bad luck and continual line-up problems it remains doubtful whether Diabolic will once again rise to the level of underground prominence they once held. Since the release of the album the band has parted ways (once again) with Ouellette and McLauchlin. In February 2013 lead guitarist Jeff Parrish passed away due to a heart attack, and it appears that Diabolic has a hard time holding on to a fully functional line-up. As such they will probably never be able to secure high-profile tours like they did in the band’s heyday in the early 2000s. The album does what it sets out to do, but like the band’s past prime material it is never exceptional except in its adherence to traditional genre tropes and conventions. The production is probably the best the band has experienced, but it cannot redeem the album in any meaningful way. Like the Joe Petagno artwork that serves as its front, it is merely a reminder of what once was the most promising death metal outfit in the Florida region. “Excisions Of Exorcisms” is an unremarkable return from a band that never was really special to begin with.