With the seemingly infinite diversification of death metal in the modern era, one often wonders how newcomers could possibly hope to present fresh and unprecedented ideas without lapsing into a rehash of older ideas. As of late, many bands have seen success in reviving already perfected styles, or even performing direct tributes to now-defunct bands. However, as has always been true with extreme metal, certain groups blessed with arcane wisdom and prodigious talent continually surprise us by crawling from the woodwork to offer up enigmatically mystifying forms yet unknown to the mortal senses.
Hailing from “the same swamps upon which Brussels was founded,” Belgian death metallers Moss Upon the Skull have completely obliterated even the loftiest of expectations with a sound that I can only describe as progressive blackened tech-death. Since 2010 they have lain in wait, slowly gestating their highly nuanced aesthetic strategy and developing their identity not only musically, but philosophically as well; referencing esoteric thinkers such as Terence Mckenna and Aleister Crowley, their debut LP In Vengeful Reverence tells a tale of magick manifested through willpower. According to guitarist Jef Van de Weghe, “the album title refers to dealing with frustration, hardship or threat not in an emotional way, but with serene rationality in order to overcome the adversity and remove the cause of the challenge.” Indeed, the record borrows the best elements from across death metal’s multitude subgenres and interprets them through dexterous, immaculate compositions with crystal clear production, all while incorporating utterly novel elements into the mix. True to In Vengeful Reverence’s mission statement, Moss Upon the Skull have perfectly emulated both Crowley’s ideas of unrestricted free will and McKenna’s concept of forging progressive evolution by returning to the mindset of one’s most primitive manifestation.
From the very beginning of its first track “Reverse Celebration,” In Vengeful Reverence bursts forward with the sort of eclectic zeal that most groups develop over half an hour or more. We are immediately introduced to the record’s most primal elements, such as the wistful, folk metal choirs of hollow yet energetically charged chants, and the percussive, almost tribal drum fills, elements that are scattered throughout the record. We are also introduced to the record’s progressive stylings, including odd time signatures and dark synthesizers that bolster its ethereal atmosphere.
Although they cite landmark groups such as Gorguts and Morbid Angel as major influences, the apparition of Moss Upon the Skull’s debut communicates with robust clarity the appalling distinctiveness of their sound. Though Gorguts’s signature is a direct sense of existential agony, Moss Upon the Skull exhibit almost no angst, but rather a grandiose sense of personal triumph, eschewing reverberating caverns and clenched fists for green fields and the galloping glory of conquest. If Gorguts were Friedrich Nietzsche turning inward towards his own turmoil, Moss Upon the Skull is Carl Jung looking outwards to celestial, eternal archetypes.
The songs on In Vengeful Reverence are relatively short for an album of this genre – the longest, “Unseen, Yet Allseeing” clocks in at only 5:33 – keeping the ideas therein streamlined, contained, and well-focused. Rather than straying into drawn-out melancholic interludes, Moss on the Skull choose to limit their songs to one movement each in order to keep the record’s pace moving along at a bloodthirsty, head-spinning clip. The concepts on the record are thus developed from track to track, rather than within individual compositions, giving In Vengeful Reverence a quickly pivoting sense of musical diversity.
Tracks like “Disintegrated” and “Lair of the Hypocrite” present a more straightforward Scandinavian death metal assault, with Jo’s earthen, gravelly vocals rolling over the tracks’ instrumentals like waves of thunder as razor sharp dual guitar licks build sinister harmonies. Skittering rhythms dance over hyper-precise melodies in the album’s more progressive tracks such as “Servants of the Elite,” in which blistering hi-hat triplets slither over serpentine riffs, or “Peristalith,” whose midsection features a truly grandiose revolving door of time signatures overlain with Gorod-esque wiggly polyrhythmic grooves. The album is packed with delightful surprises, such as the early 90’s-style guitar solo on “Impending Evil” and its 80’s counterpart on “Unseen, Yet Allseeing,” or the brutal, face-melting double-bass breakdown on “The Serpent Scepter.”
There are indeed blackened elements to the album’s sound, such as the title track’s echoing intro and many meditative blast-beat passages throughout, but these elements always lean more towards Enslaved than Immortal, giving a definite Viking feel despite the band’s Belgian heritage. The more blackened moments on In Vengeful Reverence are never engulfed in walls of static and feedback, but are performed with spotless clarity, allowing sonic room for Mathijs’s buoyant virtuoso bass lines. Furthermore, these moments always give way to bouts of progressive madness, such as the final track’s surrender from blast beast into a bittersweet acoustic guitar harmony reminiscent of Opeth’s Morningrise.
Ultimately, all of In Vengeful Reverence’s diverse ideas contribute directly to its unified aesthetic and philosophical message, allowing the listener a glimpse into Moss Upon the Skull’s empowering visions of a universal consciousness. Their efforts to create a natural, organic artwork have paid off gloriously; In Vengeful Reverence does not simply capture the authenticity of human emotion, but ventures far beyond, resembling a world crafted by a savage god, an opulent yet brutal wilderness. Moss Upon the Skull has created an unmatched allegory of decay and rebirth, an ouroboros of an LP that stands as a major contender for album of the year.
In Vengeful Reverence is now available from I, Voidhanger records, and can be purchased via their website.