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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the Underworld’ is a cut dating back to 2014 when original drummer Chris Pernia was still in the band, but he has since been replaced by former Solstice and Malevolent Creation skinsman Alex Marquez.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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Released a year after Diabolic’s “Infinity Through Purification” the debut (and currently, only) album from Tampa, Florida death troop Unholy Ghost proves conclusively who was responsible for that band’s continual streak of utter mediocrity and pointless genericness. Whereas the newly put together Malone-led Diabolic went all out, and tried to break new ground, musically and lyrically – Unholy Ghost does exactly as they had done before and contents itself by doing nothing more. Beyond some superficial conceptual variations (in terms of artwork and guitar solos) this is a Diabolic record through and through – and it sounds exactly like the three records these three members featured on. Despite the adversity, the hardship and tribulations – nothing has changed for the trio, and given the circumstances that is a poor choice on their part. Unholy Ghost is Diabolic in everything but name, with all the shortcomings and defects that entails. “Torrential Reign” is a solid, unremarkable second-tier album from a band that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. It is reliable in what it does, but that doesn’t make it good.

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In good old Diabolic tradition the record starts off with ‘The Calling Of Sin’, a blasting opener that attempts to recapture the alchemy of ‘Extinction Level Event’ or ‘Sacrament Of Fiends’. It doesn’t really lead anywhere, and the second track ‘Soul Disment’ should readily prove just how little the band has changed at all since “Vengeance Ascending”. Diabolic was never what you call a technical band, or a very creative one – and Unholy Ghost, its direct successor, gladly lifts from the same well. Morbid Angel, Possessed and German thrash metal are its most direct influences, along with latter-day Pessimist and Brazilian trio Krisiun that can be heard in bits and parts. The Pessimist influence isn’t all that surprising given the presence of lead guitarist Kelly McLauchlin. It is only his presence that elevates Unholy Ghost above mediocrity, as his chaotic, mesmerizing leads/solos are far more elaborate and engrossing than those of Jerry Mortellaro and even Brian Malone, although his style is surprisingly close to theirs on this record. In all there’s no progression to speak of. Not in terms of instrumental skill and musicianship, and certainly not in terms of songwriting prowess. Everything is exactly as it was before.

There are three former Diabolic members present, and all are accounted for to bring their expected and usual performance to this disc. Paul Ouellette on vocals and bass guitar brings his boorish hoarse grunt that is somewhere between Jason Avery (ex-Monstrosity) and “Altars Of Madness” David Vincent. His pronunciation, nor his lyrics are very good and there is no evolution to speak of since his last appearance. The bass guitar can be briefly heard on ‘Eyes Of Lost’, but it is content to double the guitars. Jerry Mortellaro (lead guitars) has become slightly better in the lead department, but the riffs he writes are somewhere between the most uninspired works of Deicide, Morbid Angel and Possessed. Kelly McLauchlin (lead guitars) is the most talented member present, and since he has been forced to adopt his style to the majority, none of his usual riffs are to be found here. At least he was able to retain much of lead/solo writing and he stands heads and shoulders above any of his peers, be they Brian Malone or Jerry Mortellaro. Aantar Lee Coates sits behind the drums, and his drumming is as limited, blast-oriented and one-dimensional as it was on any of the albums he was on in his Diabolic tenure.

You’d be hardpressed to tell this album apart from “Vengeance Ascending” aside from the tonally vaster production, and the dynamically richer compositions (although that isn’t saying much). Once again the band holed up at Diet Of Worms in Florida and with exception of the crunchier and thicker guitar tone, Coates’ dominant snare drums and impotent kickdrums – this is a Diabolic record in tone, construction and in the parts where it isn’t, it can be simply rationalized by the fact that this was a splinter project. The music is as overindulgent (especially in terms of drumming), busy and single-minded as it was in the previous band setup. Not even a new writing partner can bump up the trio’s immensely mediocre songwriting capabilities. Neither does the band do anything to accommodate Kelly McLauchlin’s writing talent and superior skill level. The Unholy Ghost logo has similarities with the Diabolic logo, and the digital artwork of Swedish artist Matthias Norén from ProgArt Media is better if only by grace that it is, thankfully, different from the goofy satanic/horror canvasses by Danish painter Joe Petagno this band adorned its album covers with when they were still called Diabolic.

kellySince Unholy Ghost was the creative vessel for Aantar Lee Coates, it isn’t very surprising that he had a hand in the majority of material present on this disc. All material was written by the Coates-Mortellaro axis, with exception of ‘Denunciation – the Cursed’ and ‘Torrential Reign’ being written with assistance by Kelly McLauchlin, ‘Under Existence’ was co-written with Paul Ouellette and ‘The Apparition’ was co-written by producer Juan ‘Punchy’ Gonzales and Coates. A promo video was shot for ‘Under Existence’, but that helped little in further expanding the band’s fanbase. A proposed follow-up to this album was announced. “Blasphemy Of the Grand Divine” would never materialize in any shape or form as the project fell apart due to infighting. In the two years after the release of the album Unholy Ghost would be besieged by the usual line-up woes with both Coates and McLauchlin taking their leave. The former would briefly initiate a band called Blastmasters as an excuse to later revive his main project Diabolic. McLauchlin would return to Maryland and resurrect Pessimist on a theoretical level, only later to join legendary proto-death metallers Possessed as a touring guitarist. In 2013 it was rumoured that Unholy Ghost had reformed with the entire “Torrential Reign” line-up, but these stories proved to be false, as it was Pessimist (who had now established a mostly new line-up based around the Tampa region) that had reformed once again.