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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the Underworld’ is a cut dating back to 2014 when original drummer Chris Pernia was still in the band, but he has since been replaced by former Solstice and Malevolent Creation skinsman Alex Marquez.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.

Some things thankfully never change. The Malevolent Creation of the Mid-Atlantic, better known as Dying Fetus, is one of those things. Since forming in the halcyon days of death metal in 1991 John Gallagher and his comrades have continually flown the flag, they have been the subject of imitation across the globe and have weathered industry changes, trends and the whims of popular opinion. “Wrong One To Fuck With” is the closest to a spiritual successor to “Killing On Adrenaline” from 1998. Dying Fetus were never known for their subtlety and this album has no intentions of doing things differently. There aren’t a lot of Maryland bands that matter in the grand scheme of things. Aurora Borealis is one, Misery Index in the other. Dying Fetus, of course, is the top-tier band of their region.

The perceptive will certainly have noticed that the original Dying Fetus logo has been restored, a first since the “Grotesque Impalement” EP from 2000. The muddy artwork might not be much (it certainly is no match to the collage art of “Killing On Adrenaline”, “Destroy the Opposition”, “Stop At Nothing” and even “War Of Attrition”) and the hardcore album title might not exactly inspire confidence, but “Wrong One To Fuck With” harkens back to the band’s earlier, grimier days while retaining their signature technicality and showmanship. It’s exactly the sort of album that we’d hope the Gallagher-Beasley-Williams trifecta – now almost a decade in effect and the longest-running constellation since the classic Netherton days – still had in their cylinders. “Wrong One To Fuck With”, for better or worse, is a callback to the long forgotten demo days of “Infatuation With Malevolence” with their modern schwung and technical prowess.

As unbelievable as it may sound Dying Fetus is now an elder statesman of the genre. Age might not have dulled Gallagher but “Wrong One To Fuck With” is certainly a lot more reserved than any of their more recent outings. The Beasley era is often accused of being one of inconsistency. Dying Fetus has always remained true to the tenets of their sound. Some albums might be more hardcore inspired, others might be more technical – what always rings true is that Gallagher never indulges in left-of-field creative experiments. It’s as much a bone of contention as it is a seal of approval that Dying Fetus can be counted upon to deliver the goods in a consistent and timely manner. It’s the sort of productivity you’d wish Morbid Angel, Vital Remains, Deceased and Monstrosity had. The old Fetus seldom disappoints and even at their worst they’re still better than most, which is saying a lot considering the overall state of the underground metal scene these days.

Spanning 10 tracks (11 on special editions) and a gargantuan 54 minutes “Wrong One To Fuck With” is certainly the longest Dying Fetus offering to date. It takes more after “Infatuation With Malevolence” and “Purification Through Violence” than it does after “Killing On Adrenaline” and “Stop At Nothing”. The production is slightly rawer than past outings and the drum tones were a lot more commanding on “Stop At Nothing” – yet those minor qualms aside it’s still the Dying Fetus everyone has come to love (or hate, depending on who you ask). The album artwork clearly took a cue from the poster art to the William Lustig slasher Maniac (1980). Apparenty Gallagher envisioned a far more gruesome artwork but Relapse Records, in all their benevolence and wisdom, vetoed a far less confrontational canvas instead. At this point the songtitles of the average Dying Fetus album sound more Suffocation than Suffocation themselves do.

So is “Wrong One To Fuck With” a full return to the olden days? No, cos that would alienate the fanbase Dying Fetus spent the better part of the last 15 years cultivating. Instead it does what every old band trying to recapture the flame of inspiration of their youthful days does. Which is incorporating visual aesthetics and songwriting decisions that have been absent for some time to appeal to the nostalgia aspect. Dying Fetus certainly do it a lot more gracefully than some of their contemporaries and while “Wrong One To Fuck With” might not be a classic, instant or otherwise, the trio’s performance is frighteningly tight enough. Dying Fetus, it appears, has matured. Gallagher’s formula hasn’t changed much, if at all – but the collaboration with Beasley and Williams has honed it almost to perfection. The focus might change from album to album but the basis of death metal always remains intact. This time around the focus squarely lies on the "old school" feeling.

The newfound loyalty to Steve Wright and WrightWay Studios in Baltimore has replaced their long-standing association with producer Steve Carr and Hit and Run Studios in Rockville. What exactly is stopping Gallagher from recording an album at Nighsky Studio in Waldorf with producer Ron Vento? It certainly wouldn’t hurt to try a different recording facility within the comfort of the wider Maryland region to spark their creativity and inspiration. There isn’t so much to say about “Wrong One To Fuck With” that we don’t already know or are familiar with. It’s Dying Fetus being and doing Dying Fetus. It’s not the great new chapter in the storied career of Dying Fetus but it’s testament to Dying Fetus’ persistence and longevity that they are still able to write material this impressive so deep into their well-documented career. “Wrong One To Fuck With” doesn’t fuck around at all. It kills, consistently, constantly.