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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the Underworld’ is a cut dating back to 2014 when original drummer Chris Pernia was still in the band, but he has since been replaced by former Solstice and Malevolent Creation skinsman Alex Marquez.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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On “Millennium” Fort Lauderdale underdogs Monstrosity manifested itself as a veritable force in the Florida death metal scene. Whereas its “Imperial Doom” debut was heavily redolent of Malevolent Creation, the band from whence Lee Harrison came, “Millennium” conclusively proved that Monstrosity was compositionally – and technically stronger than a good deal of its regional, more marketable peers. Despite its obvious merits Monstrosity remained only in the second-tier status as its frontman George Fisher would soon decamp to front the iconic Cannibal Corpse.

Disagreements concerning the distribution of royalties resulted in a split with Nuclear Blast Records. The termination of contract with Nuclear Blast Records led founder Lee Harrison to release future Monstrosity efforts through his own label imprint Conquest Music Group. Conquest Music handled distribution and marketing in North America, while Nuclear Blast and Hammerheart Records licensed it for European territories. A few changes in the personnel happened Death alumnus Kelly Conlon replacing Mark van Erp on bass guitar, and Jason Morgan substituting for Jon Rubin. Despite these changes former members Jon Rubin and Mark van Erp contributed to a few songs, while the majority of “Millennium” was written by Lee Harrison and Jason Morgan.

While its kinship with Malevolent Creation remains obvious through its writing Monstrosity offers everything you’d expect of a Florida death metal act. Lee Harrison is probably one of the best drummers in the region, and it's somewhat insulting that he’s still considered second-tier by many. “Millennium” is technical, and thrashy in equal measure while offering bouts of melody and groove simultaneously. Whereas on “Imperial Doom” Harrison’s drumming was mostly about speed on “Millennium” his playing truly becomes integral to each of the cuts. Some of his best work is to be found on tracks as ‘Devious Instinct’ and ‘Dream Messiah’. ‘Fragments Of Resolution’ is the sole dirge-tempo track of the album, and gives Morbid Angel a run for its money. On his swansong appearance with the band frontman George Fisher, who would soon decamp to join the much more marketable Cannibal Corpse, is in fine form. His ascending-descending vocal lines, much to Harrison’s credit as a songwriter, are legendary.

All music was written by Jason Morgan and Lee Harrison, except ‘Manic’ and ‘Stormwinds’ were written by Lee Harrison and Mark Van Erp, ‘Manipulation Strain’ and ‘Slaves and Masters’ was written by Jason Morgan, Lee Harrison and Mark Van Erp. The latter also has the only lyrical contributions from frontman George Fisher with this band. ‘Manic’, ‘Stormwinds’, and ‘Slaves and Masters’ were re-recorded from the self-distributed 1994 “Demo ‘94” tape. ‘Seize Of Change’ was written by Jon Rubin and Lee Harrison. The album features guest vocals by Jason Avery on ‘Devious Instinct’, ‘Dream Messiah’, ‘Fragments Of Resolution’ and ‘Slaves and Masters’. Avery, a veteran of local death metal unit Eulogy, would come to supersede Fisher who moved on to bigger opportunities with fellow genre specialists Cannibal Corpse.

“Millennium” was recorded and mixed at Morrisound Studio with Scott Burns handling the production. The Scott Burns mix was found unsatisfactory, and the album was remixed at Criteria Recording Studios by Keith Rose and Scott Kieklak. Compared to the gritty and lively “Imperial Doom”, “Millennium” sounds rather dry and sterile. Harrison’s drum tones have gained in range and textural depth but don’t possess the same amount of body as they did on the band’s debut. Monstrosity inadvertently became a victim of 1990s computer generated imagery with its Richard Dunn canvas. Unfortunate early digital art aside “Millennium” is a formidable genre exercise.

Despite cementing Monstrosity’s status as one of Florida’s most accomplished units “Millennium” never quite catched on as records of the time from the likes of Deicide, Malevolent Creation, or Morbid Angel. Widely regarded as one of the best Florida death metal acts the output from Monstrosity isn’t as profuse as some of its more popular and prolific brethren. Its outstanding and consistent level of high quality product has only been matched by Waldorf, Maryland icons Aurora Borealis or Poland’s Lost Soul. Reliability, despite the fluidity of its line-ups, aside Monstrosity is still considered a second-tier band despite its penchant for perfection, and aversion towards making artistic compromises. For that reason alone Lee Harrison and his cohorts deserve accolades for remaining true to their vision, and keeping their collective integrity intact where lesser bands would've fallen before similar hardships.