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


  1. It's good because it has some variation to it in terms of influences. I found it interesting.

    As for WITTR, they at least stand for something with some thought behind it and some integrity. Something that can't be said for Krallice or The Transcendental Technicolor Metal Troupe from Williamsburg.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. As I said above, I'm not quite sure what to think! But I definitely liked a lot of it.

    As for WITTR, gotta disagree. Sure, there are a number of other USBM bands that are even lamer, but that really isn't saying much in their defense. As far as ideology goes, there's no more content to what they "stand for" than what Liturgy "stands for." And they have something important in common. Both took the time to compose awful manifestos (read: press releases) positioning themselves in the market by distancing themselves from "obsolete" black metal values.

    I can sympathize with their desire to defend nature, to combat materialist values, etc etc, but that's been a central part of black metal almost since day one. WITTR just defanged it and repackaged it.

  3. has anyone actually SEEN the cabin in the woods wittr supposedly lives in, because all i've heard it that 'it' 'exists' 'somewhere'

  4. Just fact correcting- vastum are from san francisco, not PNW, and share 3 members of acephalix not 2. dan the vocalist is also the biggest DM nerd I think I've ever met; boy knows his shit.

  5. and yes, i've seen that wittr cabin; actually slept there a few nights.

  6. Thanks for all the firsthand knowledge, anonymous!

    My bad for not checking the location more carefully. I suppose to me San Francisco sort of falls into the PNW musical region, in terms of the kind of metal and crust coming out of it. As far as members in Acephalix, I was going by Metal Archives, so your update is welcome.

    And yeah, I'm actually not surprised that they're very much into death metal. But it SOUNDS like they aren't. I wanted to focus on Vastum's strange "attempting to make death metal" sound rather than delving into speculation on their scene pedigrees. Thank you for removing the need to speculate, though.

  7. hey dude when you stayed at the wittr cabin did they make you drink wheatgrass