Ah, Polish death metal. The riffing quivers with imperial might, the drumming carpet-bombs soundscapes like F-22s over Syrian ISIS outposts, the band names evoke titanic sacrilegious deities or bear primal aggression with their blunt simplicity: Behemoth, Hate, Azarath, Decapitated, and – Calm Hatchery. Uh – the fuck? Yes, forming in 2002 with a moniker that calls to mind cuddly newborn dinosaurs instead of ragged bleeding neck stumps, Calm Hatchery already stacked the cards against themselves before even recording 2004 debut El-Alamein or 2010 follow-up Sacrilege of Humanity. Fortunately I’ve learned my lesson about judging a band by name alone (I foolishly disregarded KEN Mode for the longest time because their name sounds like a video game cheat that lets you play as Barbie’s male counterpart), but even suppressing my bias, I still found Sacrilege pretty insipid overall. Does Fading Reliefs fare any better?
Well, opener “Sun of God” shows they’re about as good at puns as they are at band names (seriously, am I missing something here?), but the music is what really matters – and once that sweet Melechesh-ian lead pokes its head from the sand a few seconds in, you’re dragged straight into the cover photo and subjected to a locust swarm of Middle Eastern-inspired death metal. With finger-tangling fretboard gymnastics, alternating wargod-growl/necromancer-rasp vocals, and a few Babylonian acoustic flourishes supplementing more typical Vader-style riffs, they’ve clearly torn some pages from Nile’s playbook, though they lack the same long-winded extravagance and blisteringly technicality. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your opinion of Karl (“Colonel”) Sanders’ pet project, but to me the straightforward approach feels refreshing instead of stale, made all the more enjoyable with an archaic glaze that seems applied with genuine inspiration rather than gimmicky intent.
That’s not to say the ancient flair is the only trick in the bag or the songwriting is paint-by-numbers. Though they have a penchant for slowing the frantic tempo into a commanding rhythm and growling the song title for the chorus (“Sun of God,” “Bomben Uber Warschau”), more often the tracks eschew such accessible tendencies by doggedly barreling forward without regard for traditional structure, repeating the better parts as needed and occasionally spiraling into Mithras-esque solos that echo over the mix before swirling into cosmic nothingness.
Everything remains coherent and concise – only three of the eight tracks exceed four minutes – but there’s plenty of sand in the hourglass for distinctive moments. The simple pyramid-ascending melodic lick on “Blessing of Mantra” is sure to snap necks, while the occasional cleanly shouted vocals – best employed in the climax of “Flaming Prophecies” and throughout closer “In the Midst of Nothingness” – tear away the façade by exposing vocalist Szczepan not as an earth-raping demigod, but as an ancient wild-eyed warrior impelling legions to their imminent deaths. It’s a gripping touch that I wish was more prevalent in this style of music.
So why not a higher rating? Truth is, while there isn’t much to nitpick, nothing on Fading Reliefs will cause you to proclaim Calm Hatchery as genre torchbearers or, I don’t know, don an Anubis mask and hop around your room in orgiastic glee (as Annihilation of the Wicked is wont to do for me). The compositions, while enjoyable, aren’t particularly iconic or revolutionary, and while the band describe themselves as both “brutal” and “technical,” they’re neither as adept as the better bands in the Unique Leader roster nor as slam-mongering as whatever bald heavyweights are the quintessence of brutal death these days.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. At 33 minutes (excluding the bonus native-language version of “Bomben Uber Warschau”), these Polish deathsters have crafted a well-executed and serviceably produced record that remains engrossing without overstaying its welcome. While not incredible, Fading Reliefs could be one of the year’s better examples of meat-and-potatoes (or more appropriately, kielbasa-and-pierogies) death metal done right. At the end, as I’m imagining the golden sunset over windswept sand dunes and the final riff fades to silence, only one question still niggles in my mind: how the fuck did five grown men think naming their death metal band Calm Hatchery was a good idea?