Friday, June 10, 2011
Review: Vastum - Carnal Law
This is a weird one, and difficult to review because I can neither cast it on the pyre nor enthusiastically endorse it. 20 Buck Spin is always a toss-up: sometimes they release really cool underground shit, sometimes they release disposable "art metal" for the Stereogum crowd. Vastum's Carnal Law is somewhere in between.
I'll say it up front: This sounds like people who aren't that familiar with death metal trying to make death metal. (Which is weird, because Vastum shares 2 members with the super legit crust-turned-DM band Acephalix.) What am I getting at with this accusation, though? Well, it seems like they're going for "old school doom/death," but this doesn't sound like Autopsy, nor does it sound like Asphyx or Winter, and it only faintly resembles Bolt Thrower. In fact, Bolt Thrower are the ONLY obvious death metal influence I can detect here, and Vastum are sadly lacking that band's crushing midtempo riffage.
Vastum's flagrant non-deathiness is embodied by the limp 6/8 chug riffs that crop up all over the place. Just over a minute into the first track, "Primal Seduction," or a mere 22 seconds into "Devoid," you hear them whip these out almost by reflex, as if they were self-evidently heavy. But they're not. And they certainly don't command you to headbang. It's as if, by locking into a 6/8 "groove," Vastum have somehow surrendered the ability to actually groove or grind. These parts don't offer much in the way of interesting melody, either--mostly filler vaguely reminiscent of Reign In Blood on quaaludes. The only time Vastum can get 6/8 to work is at about 1:15 in "Spirit Abused," where they take a more black metal approach to the riffing and the drummer gives everything some much-needed rhythmic compression instead of settling back into the usual thrash cliche. Sadly after about 30 seconds they revert to the awkward mid-paced chug. Nobody who actually listens to death metal would settle for this kind of mediocrity. But to someone who has only a faint idea of what death metal sounds like--thanks to some Slayer or his high school buddy's Cannibal Corpse albums--these riffs WOULD sound like the heaviest thing on earth, because they offer the appearance of heaviness.
The weird thing is, Vastum's tenuous relationship to actual death metal can also work in their favor. First, there's the overall sound--it's really hard to pin down, which is another way of saying it's original. This is clearly not true old school--it's way too polished--but it's also on a completely different trip from most self-consciously contemporary death metal bands. It's cavernous and menacing, and there are really cool touches of melody and harmony in the slow parts. The two vocalists give hair-raising performances, and it's probably worth hearing a track or two for these alone.
Second, there are the fast parts. These are pretty sick, in part BECAUSE they sound so unlike traditional death metal. There's nary a tremolo riff to be found. Instead, Vastum seem to draw on their roots in crust and thrash, without giving way to the typical gestures of either scene. You'll hear d-beats, but never accompanying the syncopated punk-style riffing used by Entombed or Dismember. You'll hear thrash riffs, but always with a heaviness and complexity that hints at death metal. The phrasing in the uptempo riffs is generally outstanding--they're the musical equivalent of long and elegant sentences. Check out 0:55 in "Umbra Interna" and 2:05 in "Devoid" to hear what I mean. 1:32 in "Re-Member" sounds a bit more typical, but it's heavy as fuck.
So, it could be argued that Carnal Law is less a failed attempt at death metal than a pretty cool reimagination of it. But that doesn't make the former point of view any less valid. This is a band with real potential, but they need to focus on their strengths--cool thrashy riffing and sinister leads--while also upping the death quotient.
For my part, I worry that we may have finally found the death metal equivalent of Wolves In The Throne Room. Pacific Northwest? Check. Superficial appropriation of major influences? Check. Sounds impressive to people unfamiliar with the genre? Check. Lyrics about shit that won't scare away the hipsters? Check. Let's hope the next release proves me wrong. For now, give this one a listen and let me know what you think. It probably comes down to personal taste.
Next week I'll review the new Acephalix album, Interminable Night. What I've heard so far sounds dope, and it will be interesting to see how it stacks up against Carnal Law. Look for that Tuesday, or Friday at the latest.
Buy this album on Amazon