Ever blackened, ever brutal, ever bothersome of livestock, Austria’s Belphegor have once again returned to necromance us with another flurry of panzer division extremity. I may not have gushed quite so profusely over the previous album, Conjuring the Dead, as Steel Druhm, but I certainly enjoyed the uptake in death metal that informed that record and still occasionally drop in when in need of a merciless bondage beating. Totenritual, the band’s 11th, follows the uniform quality of their post-2011 material but sees the Austrians relinquishing the hint of melody that flashed through their most recent output, returning instead, a hex in hand, to the blackest of black. Totenritual isn’t particularly divergent from the tried and tested formula, but it does boast some of the band’s most cinematic tracks to date, so secure thy goats and prepare thee for a bleating.
Wielding a wicked Behemoth bludgeon, Totenritual invokes “Baphomet” as its opening gambit – it’s fairly mid-paced stuff, with the obligatory flurry thrown in for good measure. As a first foray into an album, it isn’t the strongest but advances relentlessly enough to make its point. Heralded by a wretched scream courtesy of frontman and band mainstay, Helmuth, “The Devil’s Son” is another story. Matching cold trem-picked sequences with shredding lead breaks, the song screams through torrents of blasting thanks to newcomer skinsman, Simon “Bloodhammer” Schilling, before fading out with a bout of listless acoustics. Since his touch-and-go bout with Typhoid Fever a few years ago, Helmuth has largely clung to his tectonic death growls, but Totenritual features a notable increase of his black metal rasps, accentuating the album’s more occult instrumentation and Belphegor‘s overall intention for the record.
Reducing bones to meal and souls to ash, the real spine of the material inhabits the following trifecta. Between them, “Swinefever – Regent of Pigs,” “Apophis – Black Dragon” and “Totenkult – Exegesis of Deterioration” respectively offer brutalizing riffs, evocative eastern melodies and enough blackened nuances to satisfy any dread king of night. “Apophis – Black Dragon” undulates with an inexplicably catchy ebb and flow, sparking the usual Nile comparisons in the song’s vast scope and creating an atmosphere lesser seen on the band’s previous outings. The once burgeoning potential for self-parody apparent on the spurious Bondage Goat Zombie is unrecognizable in these moments of legitimate and calculated song craft. Despite the record’s propensity for pushing the envelope, it isn’t without reproach. The instrumental “Totenbeschwörer” is, as always. unnecessary and the album’s title and closing track is almost redundant. At under three minutes, it’s a brief extension in almost every way of the preceding “Embracing A Star” and serves no real purpose, ending the album on something of a whimper, despite the stentorian clamor that had been hitherto alluded to. Doubly frustrating is that “Embracing A Star” bores through obtuse angles and awkward note-bending to make for truly claustrophobic blackened death metal, which retroactively reduces the following finale to an arbitrary edit. Another glaring indictment of the increasing lack of effort applied to track arrangement in modern metal.
Bands like Belphegor, who rely on a vast density of sound to translate their incessant pummeling, have a mild tendency to mix the drums a little too high — something that Totenritual‘s predecessor suffered from. Jason Suecof’s touch maintains the usual tenets but minutely lowers the percussion, forcing Helmuth’s dual vocals to the fore and emphasizing the increased atmospherics that define the album. While the record most certainly reconnects with its black metal legacy, this is still death metal, and as such maintains the audible collision that the genre represents. A willingness to balance the influences, however, pays dividends, particularly in moments like “Totenkult – Exegesis of Deterioration,” which knowingly alternates between mid-paced demolition and sequences of distinctly lower temperatures.
Totenritual is a Belphegor album, which, by this point, should give you some clarity as to what to expect. Such established acts aren’t particularly wont to stray from the beaten path, but when wielding an edge honed to such vorpal quality, why bother? This current epoch of the band’s career is seemingly without flaw, and although with each passing release that specter of diminished returns admitedly looms ever-closer, Belphegor won’t be found resting on their laurels just yet, still more than able to weaponize their lascivious Luciferian-isms with enough conviction to subjugate your masochistic eardrums. How long said winning streak continues remains to be seen, but until such a day, Totenritual marks another entry in a dependably potent discography.