The past two years have put to death the oft-spoken cliché that only young hungry bands make exciting music anymore. 2014 alone has given us career highlights from genre titans Vader and Behemoth, while last year’s Gorguts/Carcass one-two comeback punch still has me walking around like our gore-obsessed friends across the pond personally shoved their captive bolt pistol up my ass. Now on the eve of an At the Gates reunion record, it’s no surprise newcomers like Denmark’s Aphyxion have trouble finding a place to surface in the churning sea of the current scene. Even with three EPs and over 100 shows logged since forming in 2007, their debut album Earth Entangled shows them fighting their damnedest to breathe as a modern metal group.
The phrase “modern metal” is as much an acknowledgment of the band’s youth (they formed in their mid-teens) as an apt description of their sound. Not unlike Sylosis or Anterior, Aphyxion’s music is the aftermath of a cyclone, blending Swedish melodic death and mid-2000s American metalcore with a whiff of death-thrash groove. When opening track “Transgress” bursts right in with slick production, rapid guitar chugging, and been-there/done-that growls, I’m tempted to click a stopwatch to count the seconds until the first Gothenburg riff shows up. In a feat of surprising restraint, it’s not until five minutes and a few breakdowns later that “In Decline” brings that first melodeath riff, opening the floodgates for similar fretwork to drench the rest of the album.
It’s not as bad as it initially sounds – “Despicable,” for example, features a tight, tension-building melody that reminds me of Insomnium in their prime. Still, it’s amazing the paradox that Aphyxion embody. Despite not ripping off any one band in particular, their sound is eerily familiar. Death-metal-lite and the aforementioned melodeath throwback guitars form the bedrock of the verses, smashing into roared choruses backed by rapid harmonies (“The Deterioration”), soaring power chords (“In Decline”), and occasional reverb-soaked leads (“Born Abomination”), with breakdowns thrown in to keep the hardcore dancers happy. Any metalhead who had a pulse during the mid-2000s has heard stuff like this before. The lyrics aren’t the most original either, with generic take-a-stand lines like “the world is perishing, but life must go on” and “I have the power to do anything!” Somewhere, a tanktop-clad 16-year-old has that repeating in his head as he grunts through deadlifts in his hormone-fueled pre-season workout.
Full disclosure, however – despite my better sense telling me to toss this in the nearest bottomless ravine along with other fallout of the modern death metal explosion, it’s actually hard to hate given how downright earnest it sounds. Aphyxion aren’t pandering to a scene here. There are no kitschy electronic beats, whiny clean choruses, pussyfooting interludes, or djent riffs designed to have Sumerian Records fanboys pulling down their mesh shorts and reaching for the lotion. Instead, this is music made for the love of the artists they grew up with, compositions written by a younger generation fed for years on a steady diet of Soilwork and Shadows Fall. The breakdowns – while not always welcome – don’t feel shoehorned, the guitars are competent enough that you’ll find yourself nodding along at least once or twice, and the lyrics actually give the album some juvenile charm on further listens. I might even spin this again at some point – as long as the windows are up and my kvlt friends aren’t in the car.
For those who don’t mind some -core fuckery in their death metal, you could do much worse. More traditional fans may want to steer clear, or at least cleanse their palate with some Bolt Thrower afterward. Where will they go from here? Earth Entangled posits Aphyxion high on the bell curve, whichever side they slip down depends on whether they keep treading water or learn to swim like the scene’s hardened veterans. A word of advice to potential fans: hold your breath on the way down.