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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.

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“Arise” was the summit of Sepultura’s musical evolution since its inception, and the realization of the sound they had been building towards since “Bestial Devastation” and “Morbid Vision”. It is the most unified and complete Sepultura release in terms of imagery, lyrics, music and presentation – all the pieces fell in place. As the penultimate Sepultura effort it is testament to what the band could have been. From this point onward Sepultura would only deteriorate and regress in every aspect of its being, musically as well as artistically.

The album is evolved in the melodic sense, masterfully paced, and far more controlled sounding than both of its predecessors. It is the logical conclusion of the progression in musicality and technical prowess that “Schizophrenia” introduced. What it loses in riff count it compensates in visceral intensity, memorable hooks and nuanced song arrangements. Of the early Sepultura canon “Arise” is the most ambitious and dynamic in terms of songwriting scope. As a signpost for the end of the band’s early era it was the last to feature long-time studio keyboardist Henrique Portugal in any capacity.

‘Dead Embryonic Cells’, ‘Desperate Cry’, ‘Murder’ and ‘Subtraction’ are easily the most technical cut of the record. “Arise” tones down the sheer amount of riffs per song and the album as a whole, along with the band’s patented speed outbursts, in favor of a more controlled, refined take on their earlier sound. It is a significant change that would inform the band’s decision allowing for the groove metal pandering on “Chaos A.D.” and its eventual follow-up, the band’s creative death certificate “Roots”. On “Arise” the more deliberate pace allows many of the nuances in the songwriting and riffs to come more to the fore. It is the most death metal sounding of all the early Sepultura releases. The synthesizers by Portugal and the Kent Smith produced sound effects enhance the very otherworldly atmosphere. Sadly, it would never be revisited again in the band’s post-Cavalera catalog making “Arise” a unique proposition in that respect.

‘Altered State’ is opened with simulated wind sounds and tribal percussion. ‘Under Siege (Regnum Irae)’ with an acoustic guitar section and quotes two passages of the abbreviated prologue to the controversial 1953 historic novel “The Last Temptation” by Nikos Kazantzakis. The novel was famously adapted for the screen by Martin Scorsese as “The Last Temptation Of Christ” which in turn was sampled by Tampa, Florida death metal act Deicide on its third and most defining album “Once Upon the Cross”. In order to give “Arise” the proper marketing push two promotional videos were shot. Chosen for the treatment were ‘Dead Embryonic Cells’ and the title track. The latter led to its share of controversy as MTV refused to play the video due to its apocalyptic religious imagery. A further high-quality live home video “Under Siege” was shot in Barcelona, Spain during the band’s European tour in support of the album.

Seeing how “Beneath the Remains” was mixed at the renowned Morrisound Studio in death metal capital Tampa, Florida – it was only natural that Sepultura would record its next album at said facility. For “Arise” death metal sound guru Scott Burns manned the console. Of the early Sepultura catalog “Arise” had the best production work. The lead/rhythm guitars sound crunchy and concrete, the bass guitar tone is warm and commanding. The drum tones are full-bodied, organic and warm sounding. The album has the best bass guitar and drum tone the band was ever able to capture. Although credited in the production notes Paulo Xisto Pinto Jr. did not play bass guitar on the record. Andreas Kisser recorded studio bass parts for the album.

That “Arise” is the best produced record of the band’s prime era was in no small part due to the involvement of Scott Burns. Lending their expertise to the product were a number of other respectable figures. For “Arise” artwork by Michael Whelan was commissioned once more. On this canvas Whelan depicts H.P. Lovecraft's Yog-Sothoth, a cosmic deity from the Cthulu Mythos. The bone S that would become the band’s mainstream identifier and their most recognizable sigil is introduced here, as well as the enduring font logo. The old logo that was used up until “Schizophrenia” can still be found in the booklet. The album was mixed at Quantum Sound Studios, Jersey City, New Jersey by Andy Wallace. Wallace would produce “Chaos AD”, this album’s highly divisive successor, at Rockfield Studios in South Wales, England. Howie Weinberg at Masterdisk in New York mastered “Arise”. Kent Smith at Soundsmith Productions was responsible for the sound design and numerous studio effects that can be heard on the album.

As the most death metal sounding of all early Sepultura releases “Arise” is the zenith of the band’s individual and collective skill. Masterfully paced it is where Sepultura found the ultimate equilibrium between death – and thrash metal without doing concessions to either style. Next to being the most unified and complete in terms of presentation “Arise” is the zenith in the band’s early discography as far production work is concerned. Pushing the band to the limits of its capabilities, in both instrumentation and songwriting, “Arise” heralds the end of Sepultura as a death/thrash metal formation. The band would subsequently experience an identity crisis that would eventually fracture it at the height of its popularity. In the aftermath of said split Sepultura would regroup but never reclaim its place within the mainstream metal consciousness outside of its native land.