Skip to content

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Underworld’ is a cut dating back to 2014 when original drummer Chris Pernia was still in the band, but he has since been replaced by former Solstice and Malevolent Creation skinsman Alex Marquez.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

Of all the classic Florida death metal bands Monstrosity for some reason never quite rose to the level of prominence and visibility as their peers in Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Malevolent Creation, Morbid Angel, and Obituary. Up until 2007 Monstrosity was a reliable second-tier with a healthy work ethic and a respectable measure of quality even though they weren’t as prolific in terms of releases as some of their more popular contemporaries. 2007’s “Spiritual Apocalypse” heralded a new era for Monstrosity and rejuvenated their robust death metal with a progressive, more melodic slant and drastically improved production values. In 2012 the live DVD “Live Apocalypse” was released to little fanfare and even littler press. Then… nothing happened. For 11 years the world waited with bated breath for Monstrosity to finally claim their rightful place among the celebrated elite in the genre’s hallowed upper echelons. Except nothing really happened outside of the surfacing of the occassional rehearsal video. Then suddenly “The Passage Of Existence” was announced. Apparently forever relegated to second-tier status Monstrosity once again proves that they’re still better than everyone else.

“The Passage Of Existence” is a refinement of the more progressive direction that “Spiritual Apocalypse” introduced and it largely consists of the same musicians. The closest equal to “The Passage Of Existence” is Death’s landmark epic “Symbolic”. Indeed. In the 11 year layoff in between albums Lee Harrison and his companions have honed, fine-tuned and perfected their assault from the ground up. “The Passage Of Existence” sounds unmistakably like Monstrosity only do they now sound as highly stylized, deliberately paced, and as melodic and neoclassical as they have ever been. It might not be as outright percussive as, say, “Imperial Doom” or “Millennium” but it combines the technical showmanship of “Rise to Power” with the subtlely progressive – and more melodic inclinations from “Spiritual Apocalypse”. “The Passage Of Existence” reveals its intricacies in playing and composition gradually. It banks far more on control, precision and restraint than it does on engrossing the listener on initial discovery. In other words, it is a grower of an album that reveals a multitude of details and layers only on repeated listens. As heavy as Morbid Angel sounded on “Kingdoms Disdained” Monstrosity has actually eclipsed them years ago in terms of songwriting and performance. It’s almost criminal how underappreciated Monstrosity still is even after nearly 30 years.

Carried over from “Spiritual Apocalypse” are frontman Mike Hrubovcak (who will have a second release out in 2018 with Hypoxia’s second offering “Abhorrent Decimation” on Ultimate Massacre Productions), bass guitarist Mike Poggione, lead guitarist duo Mark English (who also figured into the surprisingly decent “Overtures Of Blasphemy” from Deicide) and relatively-new Matt Barnes and founder/drummer Lee Harrison. Spanning 12 tracks and about an hour’s worth of music some of the material for “The Passage Of Existence” was written as early as 2009 and others were premiered as bare-bones rehearsal videos in 2013 (‘Solar Vacuum’, ‘Dark Matter Invocation’). Where “The Passage Of Existence” bears the most similarities to Death’s “Symbolic” is that the pace is far lower than in the past, there’s an advanced sense of melodicism that runs through out and all the songs are elegantly constructed compositions with extended sections of neoclassical soloing and some of the best drumming one is likely to hear. The spirit and mentality of Chuck Schuldiner was never more present than it is on here. Hopefully “The Passage Of Existence” will herald a new era of productivity and visibility for Monstrosity, whose modest body of work should speak for itself by now. “The Passage Of Existence” is erroneously dubbed a comeback by some less discerning critics but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Monstrosity might have been existing on the periphery in the decade-plus since “Spiritual Apocalypse” but they always remained active.

While “The Passage Of Existence” is consistently strong through out and there aren’t any notable lapses in quality it does lack something in way of a signature song. In fact “The Passage Of Existence” is so stylistically consistent that it’s sometimes hard to tell where one song ends and another one begins. There’s so much happening in each and every song that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of. Everybody gets their moment in the limelight, whether it’s Lee Harrison’s always versatile and acrobatic drumming, Mike Poggione’s flowing funky bass licks that support the guitars as much as they solo on their own or the exquisite leads and beautifully laid-out solos from Mark English and Matt Barnes. Mike Hrubovcak is pretty much himself and his vocals haven’t changed much from the bygone times of “The Burning Passion” from his erstwhile unit Divine Rapture. The fantastic artwork from Timbul Cahyono of bvllmetalart is in line with past efforts and reminiscent of Atheist's "Elements". It probably is the most accomplished art Monstrosity has had to date. The production is similar to that from “Spiritual Apocalypse” except that it is far cleaner sounding. Overall it combines the weight of “In Dark Purity” with the clarity of “Rise to Power”.

Morbid Angel’s fall from grace and subsequent restoration has been much publicized. Deicide has been existing a state of quiet resignation (or stagnation, if you prefer) for longer than that they’ve been relevant to the genre they helped define. Malevolent Creation has been courageously soldiering on regardless of how unfavorable the circumstances in which they find themselves and the lesser said about Obituary’s post-reunion albums the better. Always a silent force in the once-potent Florida death metal scene “The Passage Of Existence” might just be the strongest offering Monstrosity has yet conjured forth. It possesses a zeal and a sense of purpose that a lot of the more seasoned acts lack. Monstrosity never took anything for granted and “The Passage Of Existence” is testament to that. It might not be as immediate and straightforward as some of fans might have wished or wanted but that doesn’t stop it from being an amazing achievement on its own. We can only hope that it doesn’t take another 11 years to write, produce and record a follow-up to this formidable genre exercise that puts many of the band’s peers and competitors to shame. The Horror Infinity looms as strong as ever…