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Since forming in Attica, Greece in 2002 Cerebrum has proven to be one of the more resilient and interesting technical death metal bands to come from the Hellenic underground. That isn’t to say that things have been particularly easy for them. Their on-and-off collaboration with high-profile (session) drummer George Kollias has been as much of a boon as it has been a bane. Thus far they have released three albums, one and all stellar examples within their specific niche, on as many different label imprints. “Spectral Extravagance” was released through Czech Republic’s Lacerated Enemy Records in 2009 with “Cosmic Enigma” following in 2013 on Japanese imprint Amputated Vein Records. “Iridium”, their third and most recent offering, is distributed and marketed through Transcending Obscurity Records based out of Mumbai, India. In an ideal world “Iridium” (stylized as "IrIdIum") is Cerebrum’s overdue passage to the big leagues.

As the opposite of the more stereotypically American sounding Inveracity (whose bass guitarist now resides in his constellation) Cerebrum has by and far probably been the most interesting Greek death metal band this side of Sickening Horror. Jim Touras (vocals, guitars) and his men have always prided themselves on being of a progressive and forward-thinking disposition. Like the two records before it “Iridium” combines the typical rugged Greek death metal with technical workouts redolent of Atheist (“Piece Of Time” and “Unquestionable Presence”) and mid-to-late period Death (“Human” and “Individual Thought Patterns”) with the density and percussiveness of early Suffocation (“Effigy Of the Forgotten”, “Breeding the Spawn”). There has always been a slight undercurrent of thrash to many of the riffs and chord progressions that Cerebrum uses but it underscores that these men grew up on all the right records and thankfully keep their music free from any contemporary influences. Touras and Michalis Papadopoulos (guitar) remain from “Spectral Extravagance” and “Cosmic Enigma”. George Skalkos (bass guitar) debuted on “Cosmic Enigma” and “Iridium” inducts Defkalion Dimos (drums) into the fold.

Whereas a band as Sickening Horror has drifted towards a direction that is as much symfo as it is industrial while retaining their death metal essence; Cerebrum hasn’t shed its skin quite as drastically as the former has. In the years since “Cosmic Enigma” Cerebrum has forsaken the more conventional and rigid structures for something that is altogether more adventurous and wilder in terms of rhythms. “Iridium” is stylistically closer to “Nespithe” from Demilich and “Spheres” from Pestilence (minus the guitar-synths and studio effects) than it is to more brutish and pugilistic examples of the form as “The Hidden Lore” from Iniquity or ambitious cerebral exercises as “The Armageddon Theories” from Theory In Practice. No, the Chuck Schuldiner styled solos stay very much intact but “Iridium” has a far greater propensity towards a near-constant, sputtering start-stop sections and bouncing, almost elastic rhythms. In that sense it bears more of a resemblance to Fear Factory’s “Soul Of A New Machine” strictly in how it operates on a rhythmic level. Cerebrum's newfound penchant for the mechanical works wonderfully well.

That doesn’t mean that Cerebrum hasn’t retained at least a fraction of what made their previous two records what they were. The soloing is very much what it always has been and ‘A Face Unknown’ even throws in an acoustic Greek guitar solo which is something that just begs to explored further. The bass licks are uniformly funky and will very much appeal to Obscura and Monstrosity fans as such. The drumming is no longer as flashy and extravagant as it once was now that Kollias has bade his farewell. ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ is the prerequisite instrumental but it, thankfully, is better composed than the two barely developed brainfarts on “Cosmic Enigma”. Although brief as always it’s closer to ‘The Prologue of Completion’ from “Spectral Extravagance” than anything after. ‘Absorbed in Greed’ and ‘Escape to Bliss’ are by far our favorite tracks of the album as a whole. “Iridium” is by far the most cohesive effort these men have yet penned. The instrumentals still add no extra dimension in the way the band probably intended but at least now they are (once again) just a single diversion towards the end. ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ is little over a minute long and could just as easily been integrated into ‘Astral Oblivion’. Unlike “Spectral Extravagance” and “Cosmic Enigma” before it this is more of a slow burn with not much in the way of hooks. “Iridium” is a record meant to be experienced as a whole, and not as a few scattered tracks here and there.

Those hoping to see an Adam Burke, César Eidrian, George Prasinis, Piotr Szafraniec, or Dan Seagrave canvas on “Iridium” will have to settle for a rather standard-looking (and, frankly, uninteresting) Costin Chioreanu drawing. Since working with the likes of Demonical, Grave, Mayhem, Primordial, and Sigh and (in a later stage) with Arch Enemy, At the Gates, and Einherjer; Chioreanu has become the new go-to artist for bands either in the metal mainstream or ones attempting to break into it. A couple of years ago Costin Chioreanu was what Eliran Kantor has become in more recent times. The “Iridium” artwork is by no means disappointing but from Cerebrum one has come to expect something different, something innovative even. They commissioned artwork from Michał "Xaay" Loranc before the big fish took notice of him. The crunchy guitar tone from the previous two albums is sorely absent. In its stead is a thin, buzzy fuzz straight out of a mid-to-late ‘90s demo cassette. Not something you’d expect from a respected professional label with international distribution. Granted, it leaves plenty of place for the funky bass guitar licks and the frequent solos but far more damning is that it lacks the weight, heft and body it possessed on “Spectral Extravagance” and “Cosmic Enigma”. “Iridium” would’ve sounded far more threatening with a properly dialed-in or a more refined, full-bodied guitar tone. That the record was mastered by Colin Marston at his The Thousand Caves facility in Queens, New York will probably account for something to some people, but it’s not something we particularly care for. It doesn’t fix the fantastically impotent guitar tone, for one.

We like to sometimes delude ourselves into thinking that our old Nile review for that certain South Asian publication (hi, Kunal!) was at least a contributing factor in helping the men in Cerebrum score a recording contract with its current label home. However we’re realistic enough to realize that such acknowledgements will probably not be forthcoming and expecting them on our part is entirely futile, to put it mildly. For one thing it’s good to see that talented bands in the underground are still given opportunities to break to a wider audience. A band like Cerebrum is a welcome breath of fresh air in the neverending morass of mediocrity that the majors keep forcing upon the masses who still consume it without question. There’s a point to be made that the metal scene is responsible for the self-perpetuating stream of easily marketable dross that clogs up playlists and mailorders. Thankfully label imprints as Transcending Obscurity Records continue to support and develop talent in what must be a nearly extinct tradition. If there’s any justice in the world either Cerebrum further develops under the wings of Transcending Obscurity or use it as steppingstone into the upper echelon of the genre. Either way, despite a productional hiccup, “Iridium” is their most accomplished record so far.

We hesitate to describe Amthrya as Italian death metal - even though they hail from Italy and do indeed play death metal - if only because the usual connotations that come with such description do not apply and might even give the wrong impression to listeners. The fact is that Amthrya has little to nothing to do with the likes of Hour Of Penance, Fleshgod Apocalypse, and Hideous Divinity – even if they (for better or worse) have come to define Italian death metal as it’s currently known. Amthrya bears no semblance to more cavernous acts as Ekpyrosis or Ferum either. No. Amthrya is something else entirely and they don’t let themselves be pinned down to one convenient regional sound. “Incision Of Gem” is their first with former Opera IX frontwoman Abigail Dianaria (no, that’s not her real name) behind the mic who has adopted a whole new stage persona and calls herself Kasumi Onryō (no, that’s not her real name either) now. Appearances can be deceiving and no release makes a better case for this than “Incision Of Gem”, where nothing is ever what it seems…

Life is stranger than fiction. The best thing to ever happen to Opera IX in the last 18 years was the recruiting of Kasumi Onryō, the heir apparent to legendary frontwoman Cadaveria who left the band in acrimony after 2000’s “The Black Opera”. Onryō brought Opera IX back from the brink of irrelevance with her devilish womanly wiles and reinstated some of the occult magick that defined the greatest Cadaveria-era works. “Back to Sepulcro” - Onryō’s debut with that band - was a lot of things. For the most part it was an exercise in redundancy redeemed by the inclusion of two new songs. More importantly, it allowed giovane donna Onryō to showcase her vocal abilities. These abilities are now put to even better use in Amthrya, a unit consisting of nobody you ever heard of or anybody important for that matter. Again, looks can and will be deceiving. Even though Kasumi Onryō has a penchant for dressing up like Sadako from Ringu (1998) and its hand drawn artwork is richly adorned with kanji and folkloristic drawings “Incision Of Gem” is not a conceptual effort about ghosts and apparitions of Asian mythology. It might very well be the most ambitious project la signora Onryō has partaken in.

The intro ‘Mist of Perdition’ sounds like an unused atmospheric moodpiece written by Romeo Díaz and James Wong for a Tsui Hark A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) tie-in feature that the world somehow never got. The music that follows it on the other hand holds the middleground somewhere between the Dutch, German, and Finnish schools of death metal without ever sounding like either. It never gets quite as abstract and left-of-field as “Nespithe” from Demilich, nor as absurdly technical and structurally dense as Pavor, or as mechanical/angular as Gorefest (circa “False”). However, it clearly takes influence from all three to a greater or lesser degree. The "Nespithe" influence is present in the riffing and drumming and while the rhythms never get quite as out there as their Finnish forebears the spirit is there. The dry guitar tone and some of the more post-influenced chord progressions and accents recall Brood Of Hatred and Golem (circa “Dreamweaver”) in equal measure. Amthrya never stays conventional very long and the bass guitar is as integral to the compositions as any of the other instruments. That ‘Anesthesia Survival’ was chosen as a single is only normal as it’s pretty representative for what “Incision Of Gem” aims for. Onryō is at her best and most primal in a cut as ‘Ebony Gem’ and ‘Letters to my Dears – Thoughts Of A Lost Man’ where she’s allowed the space to unleash and alternate her many singing styles at different times. Which brings us to the proverbial elephant in the room and the one true point of contention (if it can be called that) that we have with Amthrya and “Incision Of Gem”. Why is so little made of Kasumi Onryō’s fascination with Asian folklore and mythology?

That the lyrics she’s singing deal with psychological deterioration and diseases of the mind is a creative choice we’re not going to contest because at least they are put to mildly entertaining Asian ghost horror imagery. Far more damning is that except for the intro segment and a guest appearance from Kotama Omen Mako from MagdaleneJu_nen (マグダラ呪念) and Hiroyuki Takano from Church of Misery precious little actually capitalizes on the Asian imagery the record so proudly boasts. In our heart of hearts we’re hoping that Amthrya ropes in session musicians to lay down some guqin, shamisen, shakuhachi, or koto melodies or even invites 瑜子 from Bloody Tyrant (暴君) to provide pipa for atmospheric breaks or as interludes on their third effort. It’s unfortunate that the usage of ethnic Asian instrumentation is limited to merely the intro. Hopefully future releases will integrate these sections into actual songs or use them as moodsetting interludes, or preferably both. There’s plenty of precedent after all, whether it’s Nile and their Egyptian segments, Morbid Angel and their ritual wanderings, or Hate Eternal integrating ritual ambient into some of their songs. What Opera IX did for Italian folk music on “Sacro Culto” Amthrya should aim to do for ethnic Asian music on any of its planned future releases. The potential here is unlimited.

The closest companion to “Incision Of Gem” are “Suspended from the Cosmic Altaar” from American death metal duo Apocrophex and “Skinless Agony” from Tunisian death metal act Brood Of Hatred, although each put their own spin on what is roughly the same formula. Unlike the Apocrophex record this one doesn’t come bearing artwork from Raúl González. That isn’t to say that the artwork from Kasumi Onryō doesn’t fit the package because it most certainly does. It stays within the monochrome spectrum which is befitting for what Amthrya is trying to convey here. Ultimately one’s enjoyment of “Incision Of Gem” depends purely on one’s preferences. The sense of theatrics and melodrama is typically Italian while the music most certainly is not. Above all this is a record that grows with each listen. This isn’t a death metal record to listen for an easily digestible fix nor has it any hooks to drag first-time listeners in. No. Amthrya is the kind of band that demands the listener’s full attention to truly absorb the layers and nuance of their work. That alone makes them worthy of adulation compared to all these other more conventional Italian death metal sounding bands. None of them are seldom as interesting as Amthrya is here – and that sells Amthrya as the superior practitioner.