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Well, the last thing you can accuse Santa Cruz, California act Decrepit Birth of is being productive and prolific in their recorded output. In the 7 years, an eternity in death metal terms, since “Polarity” the band has transformed and re-emerged in a different constellation once again. Not only have they recruited two new members; they also inked a contract with Agonia Records for European territories and remain with Nuclear Blast for their native North America. Lest we forget it has been almost a decade since the seminal “Diminishing Between Worlds” surprised the world with its elegant fusion of Chuck Schuldiner-esque melodies, extensive lead guitar sections and percussive density redolent of early Deeds Of Flesh and the Californian death metal sound at large. On “Axis Mundi” Decrepit Birth has a lot to prove. Whether or not “Axis Mundi” lives up your expectations depends exactly on what you to come, or look, to Decrepit Birth for in the first place…

“Axis Mundi” is more of a continuation than a true progression from past material. It’s a solid, if not exactly riveting, record that recombines the primal pummeling of Decrepit Birth’s not-too-distant past with its more recent sensible, melodic inclinations. Whether or not that proposition is appealling is entirely up to one’s personal preference, but for this scribe it is a rousing success as it mixes the best aspects of the first two albums into readily accessible, densely structured songs with recognizable melodic hooks and Matt Sotelo’s now patented esoteric soloing. Joining founding members Sotelo (lead guitar) and Bill Robinson (vocals) on “Axis Mundi” is the new rhythm section of Sean Martinez (bass guitar) and Samus Paulicelli (drums). Frontman Bill Robinson has always been, and continues to be, the weak link in Decrepit Birth. His vocals have never been particularly compelling and “Axis Mundi” changes little in that regard. Robinson’s vocals are serviceable enough in that they do exactly what is expected of them, but little else beyond covering those basics. They have never been interesting enough to warrant any attention on their own, and “Axis Mundi” doesn’t rock the status-quo by making him the subject of different, or slightly more ambitious, vocal lines. Samus Paulicelli (whose parents probably really liked the Metroid video game franchise) is a more than suitable replacement for KC Howard and session drummer Tim Yeung.

In their defense, at least Decrepit Birth has shown exponential growth in their lyrics since the days of “…And Time Begins”. “Axis Mundi”, as a concept, is found in several belief systems and philosophies and is understood as the center of the world, or the connection between Heaven and Earth. ‘Spirit Guide’ is about Aztlán, the ancestral home of the Aztec peoples and their migration from Aztlan to central Mexico. It also references Sipapu, a Hopi word for the hole through which the "First Peoples" of the Earth and their ancient ancestors first emerged to enter the present world. ‘The Sacred Geometry’ concerns the belief that there are symbolic and sacred meanings to certain geometric shapes and certain geometric proportions, and that a god is the geometer of the world. It has its roots in the study of nature, and the mathematical principles found therein. Sacred geometry can be found in ancient Egyptian, Indian, Greek and Roman structures. ‘Hieroglypic’ details, among other things, the Bindu, or the point at which creation begins and may become unity, in Hinduism. ‘Transcendental Paradox’ is about the Sri Yantra, a mystical diagram that consists of nine interlocking triangles associated with the Shri Vidya school of Hindu tantra. Like their German brethren in Obscura, the Californians understand that death metal can be meaningful on the lyrical front.

‘Vortex Of Infinity – Axis Mundi’ and ‘Spirit Guide’ are at least vocally more ambitious with their sparse narration next to Robinson’s usual growls. Not that Decrepit Birth is venturing into Obscura or “Focus” era Cynic territory anytime soon. The choice of cover songs on the vinyl edition offer up at least one surprise. While one would typically expect Decrepit Birth to cover Death’s ‘Cosmic Sea’ instead they opted for the psychedelic ‘Orion’ from Metallica’s “…And Justice For All” instead, as well as ‘Desperate Cry’ from Sepultura’s “Arise” and ‘Infecting the Crypts’ from Suffocation. The Suffocation cover doesn’t exactly surprise as Robinson has acted as their stand-in frontman in 2012 and Paulicelli already covered the track on his YouTube channel in 2016. The Sepultura cover song proves that Max Cavalera’s gruff barks remain unsurpassed and that Robinson, in all ways his superior, isn’t able to match, let alone improve on, them. It’s testament to the fact that the 1991 Sepultura opus is truly a timeless effort in extreme death/thrash metal mastery. Even two decades later the songwriting and compositions of “Arise” have yet to be surpassed. “Under a pale grey sky, we shall arise…” Indeed. “Axis Mundi” may not be Decrepit Birth’s “Arise” but at least it’s clear they are doing a concerted effort to diversify.

“And Time Begins” was practically an early Deeds Of Flesh record, and about the only interesting thing about it was the stellar Dan Seagrave artwork. “Diminishing Between Worlds” was where Matt Sotelo and his friends finally decided to write actual songs and “Polarity” pushed them into more melodic territory. “Axis Mundi” will be polarizing in the sense that it merges the two directions into one. In terms of intensity it leans closer towards “…And Time Begins”. Not that that is bad. “And Time Begins” was frequently, if not entirely, an undirected projectile of pummeling ferocity. “Diminishing Between Worlds” steered that aggression into recognizable songs with the added bonus of Schuldiner-esque guitar soloing. “Axis Mundi” takes the aggression of the former and the well-developed song constructions of the latter, and then adds to both for extra spice. On “Axis Mundi” Decrepit Birth looks towards its past, present, and future. As such it’s a solid return for them, a band that has probably evolved more than some of its more popular brethren. At least they are significantly more traditionally inspired than, say, an Inherit Disease but Decrepit Birth is the farthest from bands as Insentient and Italian combo Resumed, both of whom take the Death influence beyond mere guitar leads. Why exactly was it again that Leslie Medina (Insentient) wasn't offered a guest lead guitar slot?

“Axis Mundi” will probably be a disappointment to the most die-hard of Decrepit Birth fans. Others might be entirely indifferent to it. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. It is a solid return for a band that has shown not to be afraid to evolve on all fronts. Its basis is sturdy and traditional death metal and since “Diminishing Between Worlds” Decrepit Birth has, to its credit, allowed the integration of 90s genre conventions into its decidedly millennial and highly technical approach. “Axis Mundi” pushes those conventions farther than ever before – and its the first Decrepit Birth effort that is enjoyable from front to back. Decrepit Birth has always had a penchant to overcompensate and “Axis Mundi” is no different. There are enough blasts and esoteric guitar leads to satiate anybody’s craving. More importantly, though, is that this time Sotelo and his comrades concentrated on writing consistently strong songs. There was a time not all that long ago when Decrepit Birth was but a meager Deeds Of Flesh clone. Thankfully in more recent years they have started to live up to their innate potential.

The reunion of classic New York death metal combo Suffocation has been one of mixed results. It is not without a sense of irony that the most traditional sounding album since 2002 is one with only two original members, one of whom due to economic considerations has minimized his involvement to that of a glorified recording musician more than anything else. A decade and a half into their reunion there’s only question that remains: is Suffocation still relevant to the very genre they helped pioneer and redefine in their original run? Fortunately, if “…Of the Dark Light” is anything to go by then, yes – somehow they are. As unbelievable as it may sound in light of the band’s more than dubious post-“Depise the Sun” output. Can “…Of the Dark Light” hold its own against the band’s classic Roadrunner output? No, but nobody is expecting these grizzled veterans to. Which is sort of the problem.

The strangely titled “…Of the Dark Light” arrives after a turbulent four-year period of inner turmoil and personnel changes that saw the departure of lead guitarist Guy Marchais (hired to substitute for the absent Doug Cerrito) and troubled skinsman Dave Culross. Supplanting their more established predecessors are sometime Pyrexia and Internal Bleeding guitarist Charlie Errigo and Ontario, Canada-based drummer Eric Morotti. Errigo is a suitable replacement for Marchais, but the absence of original creative force Cerrito (whose advanced arthritis no longer allows him to play guitar for extended periods of time) remains a sore point, and rightly so. Morotti is no Mike Smith but nobody is expecting him to be. Instead he leans closer to Doug Bohn’s hardcore-informed style on “Pierced From Within”.

That “…Of the Dark Light” then comes across as a modern day “Pierced From Within” equivalent should surprise exactly no one. There’s very little ornamental about this new album and it’s reassuring to see the New York stalwarts reclaim at least a fraction, however insignificant, of the identity they worked so hard to distance themselves from in the early 2000s. Granted, it took them four albums and a second, less than amicable ousting of drum god Mike Smith to arrive at that point, but they are finally here. Had “…Of the Dark Light” followed on the back of “Souls to Deny” than Suffocation would have made a more than admirable comeback. Unfortunately that’s not quite how it went. To go from the lethargic and largely forgettable “Blood Oath” to something as punchy and compact as this speaks of a veritable meeting of minds. Suffocation, even though there are hardly any prime era members left, acquits itself admirably after passing itself off as a thinly-veiled beatdown hardcore band for well over a decade.

None of the songtitles do particularly inspire confidence as the majority sound nothing like vintage Suffocation (‘The Warmth Within the Dark’, ‘Your Last Breaths’, ‘Caught Between Two Worlds’, ‘Some Things Should Be Left Alone’) and from a visual standpoint “…Of the Dark Light” is anything but typical. The uncharacteristic songtitles makes one question the level of Mullen’s involvement. The days of Dan Seagrave or Hiro Takahashi artworks are apparently over. The album features guest vocals from Kevin Mueller, Mullen’s live substitute, in what is probably a remnant of the failed experiment that saw Disgorge drummer Ricky Myers briefly co-fronting the band. Boyer’s bass guitar never sounded better as it at long last sounds tonally similar as to when Chris Richards handled the low end. Charlie Errigo has quietly replaced Guy Marchais, and he very much continues what Marchais excelled at; providing a fairly indistinct and inobtrusive support layer for Hobbs’ guitar pyrotechnics. The title track, usually the tour de force of any album, sounds like every other well-budgeted New York death metal band. Whether or not that is actually a good thing is entirely up to one’s personal preference. At least Suffocation’s reunion output has been more consistent than Obituary’s. Not that that is saying much.

It goes without saying that Suffocation never again will reach the height of compositional elegance and technical prowess that they had on “Breeding the Spawn”. “…Of the Dark Light” at long last abandons the beatdown hardcore aesthetics that plagued much of the band’s post-2002 output and Suffocation - however little is actually left of it at this point - is so much better for it. Mullen, no longer the guntoting New York stereotype from the not-quite-so-distant past, wields a deeper register once more. Has he sounded better and more lively? Certainly. Has the production work done him more justice in earlier days? Not a shred of doubt about it. Frank Mullen, who has been subject to imitation and emulation for about two decades and counting at this point, remains a frontman that few can match in enunciation and delivery. Terrance Hobbs, Suffocation’s primary songsmith in the post-Cerrito era, rekindles some of his old magic on “…Of the Dark Light”. While it can hardly be called a revival this late into the reunion Suffocation reclaims at least a figment of the glory they once commanded.

“…Of the Dark Light” is the closest the New York formation has come to matching its classic tenure on Roadrunner Records. However this new recording isn’t without its shortcomings. The production from Joe Cincotta and his Full Force Studio is probably the driest, the most compressed and sterile sounding that this band has utilized thus far. Likewise is the Colin Marks artwork the most charateristically uncharacteristic. It largely is a stylistic continuation of the Raymond Swanland canvas of the prior effort. As the visuals pull the band into the 21st century its key members gravitate back to what established them two decades prior in the first place. Evolution through attrition, so to speak. Mullen and Hobbs may be the only real Suffocation members left, at least there’s something, however little, defensible about “…Of the Dark Light”. The same couldn’t be said about the drab preceeding this 11th hour return-to-form, if it can be called that.