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12 Jacket (3mm Spine) [GDOB-30H3-007}

The latest in a line of bands imitating the sound of yore, Gruesome is a California and Florida-based worship act to formative death metal outfit Death, and its pre-“Human” era, specifically the duo of “Scream Bloody Gore” and “Leprosy”. Gruesome consists of stalwarts Matt Harvey (Exhumed), Robin Mazen (ex-Demonomacy, Dérketa, Castrator), Gus Rios (ex-Malevolent Creation) and Daniel Gonzalez (Possessed). Harvey and Rios were involved in an earlier incarnaton of Death To All, a revolving group of Death alumni celebrating the repertoire and legacy of the late Chuck Schuldiner and Death.

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Matt Harvey’s affinity for cloning better known bands is widely documented through out his body of work with reputable Carcass clone act Exhumed, and his two retro-thrash metal revival acts Dekapitator and the masked Ghoul. Likewise its clear that Harvey is an avid fan of the early Schuldiner repertoie as he recreates the chord progressions, riff schematics, tonal nuances, melodic sensibility and overall writing dynamics nearly perfectly. It is good to see bass guitarist Robin Mazen return within a more visible act. Harvey imitates Chuck Schuldiner’s vocal cadences to its smallest details. Mazen’s bass guitar tone perfectly replicates Terry Butler’s chunky tone on “Leprosy” and “Spiritual Healing”. Further cues to the seminal Death can be found in the band logo (especially the spider decoration and inverted crosses) and the album title font. It also helps that the album is openly dedicated to the late Chuck Schuldiner himself in the production notes.

The opening track is a nod to ‘Leprosy’, ‘Trapped in Hell’ is ‘Defensive Personalities’, ‘Psychic Twin’ is ‘Living Monstrosity’, ‘Closed Casket’ obviously is a tribute to ‘Open Casket’, ‘Demonized’ is ‘Altering the Future’, ‘Hideous’ has the main riff from ‘Leprosy’. ‘Gruesome’ nods to ‘Infernal Death’ and ‘Born Dead’ the “Leprosy” album. The lyrics are structured in the same way as the pre-“Human” era writings of the late Schuldiner, applying similar rhyme schemes and choice of vocabulary. Lyrically the album is akin to “Scream Bloody Gore” as it for the most par draws from 1970-80s horror movies. ‘Savage Land’ is heavily inspired by Italian cannibal movies such as “Man From Deep River” and “Cannibal Holocaust”. ‘Trapped In Hell’ is about the “Hellraiser II: Hellbound”. ‘Demonized’ is the sort of satanic gore song that was prevalent on “Scream Bloody Gore” while being lyrically reminiscent of ‘Sacrificial’. ‘Hideous’ is a callback to ‘Living Monstrosity’. The deluxe CD version includes an additional two tracks with true to form covers from Slayer (‘Black Magic’) and Death (‘Land Of No Return’). The Slayer cover is especially well-chosen as it dates back to an old 1984 Death/Mantas rehearsal.

The album features a guest guitar solo on ‘Closed Casket’ by former Death axeman James Murphy (who also substituted for an unavailable Obituary guitarist Allen West on “Cause Of Death”), a guest guitar solo by Fred DeLillo (Rick Rozz) should be reserved for the provisional second album. The appearance of Murphy sets an interesting precedent for other Death luminaries to guest on future Gruesome recordings. The door is now wide open for Paul Masvidal, Andy LaRocque, Bobby Koelble, and Shannon Hamm to guest on future output; The subdued and docile bass playing fits with the early direction that the record pays loving tribute to, but imagine what bass specialist Steve DiGiorgio could bring to this band with an extended guest appearance. Likewise it will be fascinating to see where Gruesome will go from here, and whether they will persevere with the “Leprosy” sound, or explore Death’s later more technical era on future releases.

"Savage Land" was recorded at Riversound Studios in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with Rios and Gonzalez producing. The album was mixed by Eulogy mainman Jarrett Pritchard at Mana Studios in St. Petersburg, Florida. The earthen, bassy production replicates the low end thickness and crunchy guitar tone of “Leprosy”, and “Spiritual Healing”. The duo must have diligently spent countless hours recreating the late 80s/early 90s Morrisound production in minute detail. Similarly is the cover artwork by legendary illustrator Ed Repka (Atheist, Death, Massacre) is a thematical recreation of the “Leprosy” cover. Instead of functioning as a warning of chemical warfare and nuclear armageddon as did the original piece “Savage Land” blocks the same scene within a remote cannibal context. The artwork is meta in a sense that it recreates the iconic “Leprosy” artwork while simultaneously being attentive and perceptive enough to acknowledge that the band itself is cannibalizing one of the death metal genre’s most celebrated formative acts, the very act that its visually arresting cover artwork depicts its characters doing.

Gruesome is the closest the scene will ever come to having a new Death album. Obviously “Savage Land” and its songs can’t truly compete with the writing of Schuldiner himself, but as a loving tribute to the original Florida death metal sound the record is close to perfection in about every aspect. It will be fascinating to see how Gruesome progress from here as they could either further explore the band’s crude past (“Scream Bloody Gore” and the even earlier demos as Mantas), or the more technically refined era that “Human” introduced. Either way Gruesome takes its music, it certainly will be one of the most loving tributes to one of the genre’s most visionary musicians.

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With their reputation established, a more or less stable line-up and the praise of the international metal press South Carolina band Nile had become comfortable within the little niche they had carved out for themselves over the years. With fans starting to salivate uncontrollably at the mere mention of a new recording, there was no incentive to push their sound into darker, more challenging territory. Never the great innovators, they enrolled Greek drummer George Kollias and Jon Vesano was reduced to studio musician status in order for him to combine his employment with being part of Nile. As a result this is Vesano’s last recording, although he would be involved on a session basis for later recordings. “Annihilation Of the Wicked” was the first Nile album to not bring anything substantially new to the table. After three records of carving out and redefining their core sound, the band was now perfectly content where they were at their current musical destination. So how exactly does “Annihilation Of the Wicked” sound? As a stripped down version of “In Their Darkened Shrines” more than anything, really – its angrier, faster and more drum-oriented, but nothing more than that.

Nile012One of the great things about Nile is that they never lost a beat in replacing a member, no matter how well-loved or vital. Jon Vesano became a glorified studio musician, and Tony Laureano was duly replaced by Greek drummer George Kollias without any sort of hesitation on the band’s part. Kollias’ debut with the band is seamless, and while he has a wildy different style of drumming than Laureano, Roddy or Hammoura – he at least attempts to make the transition as painless as possible. The thing is that Kollias has a very busy sounding fill-oriented style, whereas Hammoura was more ‘open’ in his playing and Laureano had a more ‘circular’ style in the sense that he used every part of his kit at the most opportune of times. In terms of speed and intensity Kollias is at a similar level of skill as his illustrious mercenary predecessors. It also helps that the drum production is absolutely massive, and every part of his kit sounds stellar.

Another thing that is record is known for its minimal usage of ethnic instrumentation, monk chants and atmospheric interludes. Outside of the acoustic guitar intro, there’s only the instrumental track ‘Spawn Of Uamenti’ which tallies a grand total of 2 minutes combined out of a 52-minute album. It is as if Nile wanted to prove how brutal and technical they could be after the tour-de-force that was “In Their Darkened Shrines”. There are three signature tracks on this record, and they are mostly in the style of the band’s newfound appreciation for primal brutality than they are atmospheric. ‘Cast Down the Heretic’, ‘Lashed To the Slave Stick’ and ‘Sacrifice Unto Sebek’ are faster, heavier and more technical interpretations of their debut album’s basic sound all those years prior. No really, “Annihilation Of the Wicked” is the album “Among the Catacombs Of Nephren-Ka” always wanted to be, but couldn’t due to any number of contributing human factors. One cannot fault the band for that, as even the simplest of material of “Among…” took an unreal amount of talent, skill and discipline to master – the fact that “Annihilation Of the Wicked” is all that, but more technical, faster and demanding on all fronts is nothing short of awe-inspiring in terms of the musicians involved. That this would be the last worthwhile Nile record makes it even more bittersweet in retrospect.

Much of the writing style is similar to “In Their Darkened Shrines” with the difference that the band isn’t afraid to slow down every once in a while. The three-way vocal interplay is better organized than on the preceding record. Most of the vocals are split between Vesano and Toler-Wade with Sanders only sparsely contributing. The riffing is slightly more melodic, while the riff construction and note placement has evolved little since the record that became before. The bass playing mostly doubles the riffs, whether this can be contributed to Vesano’s studio-only involvement, or the writing on part of Sanders is something I’ll leave in the middle. Truthfully, the bass guitar lines were far more interesting in the records before this one. Here they mean nothing, and their contribution only seems to be that of bottom-end heaviness, but nothing beyond that.

There is a greater emphasis on lead/solo work with this album, which is a welcome improvement on all fronts. “In Their Darkened Shrines” already hinted upon such evolution and it is great to see it fully realized here. Whether it is Toler-Wade or Sanders delivering the leads/solos, they are sparkly and lively. Not that both of them ever reach Schuldiner, Suzuki, Santolla or Azagthoth-like levels of composition or excess, they are at least playing solos – and in a scene where that practice was rapidly becoming a lost art, such a thing has to be applauded. You could say that this album sounds far more Californian on a number of levels. The blasting and riffing tends to remind of early Deeds Of Flesh and Decrepit Birth, especially the latter that was rising to higher levels of prominence around the release of this record. Thankfully, Nile is far more musical than the average Californian death metal band. They were on this particular record, at any rate. There isn’t the same sense of cohesion and unity on this record as there was on “In Their Darkened Shrines”, and that kind of takes the effect down in any number of ways. At times it is even hard to tell where one song stops and the other one begins, but that is more of an ill of contemporary death metal than it is of Nile’s own undoing.

This would also be the last Nile record to remotely look good, because after this the band worked with a succession of lesser known cover artists that were hit-and-miss, to say the least. The most obvious offender in that regard is the direct follow-up to this record: “Ithyphallic” and the recently released “At the Gates Of Sethu”, which is equally as ugly in terms of cover art. Those albums unfortunate choices of cover art is nothing but a stark reminder that even big-budget, fully professional and international touring death metal acts can screw up as royally as their inexperienced underground peers. For the third time Wes Benscoter provided the artwork, while the design and lay-out was handled by Relapse in-house artist Orion Landau. The production by Bob Moore at Sound Lab in South Carolina is largely similar to the one of “In Their Darkened Shrines” with the biggest differences being the far cleaner guitar tone, and the absolutely massive sounding drums of new recruit George Kollias.

The album is perfunctory and reliable, but misses the highlights of the preceding record. ‘Cast Down the Heretic’, ‘Lashed To the Slave Stick’ and ‘Sacrifice Unto Sebek’ (for which the band shot a promotional video) are the songs that instantly stand out, and along with ‘Burning Pits Of the Duat’ they embody everything worthwhile about this release. It isn’t Nile’s best, it certainly wasn’t their worst – but expectations were only partially met. Still, at this point the band and this release were still head and shoulders above their many competitors and copycats. “Annihilation Of the Wicked” is a solid, reliable record – but nothing more than that.