Great, for my first review of 2015 I have a cold. My head is a slime factory, and some genius cephalic operations manager has decided that the best place to store the snot-stock awaiting delivery to my nostrils is behind my eardrums. I’m fortunate that the band I’m reviewing is Desolate Shrine, then, as their ultra-dense death metal is one of the few things powerful enough to penetrate through the aural mucus wall. Desolate Shrine previously exhibited their particular brand of hugely depressing, atmospheric death on 2011’s Tenebrous Towers and 2012’s The Sanctum of Human Darkness, which musically fell somewhere between Incantation and Aosoth. A winning combination I’m sure you’ll agree, and one that they’ve continued to develop on new platter The Heart of the Netherworld.
After an introductory track sets the mood, “Black Fires of God” thunders in with heavy mid-paced pummeling, perfectly demonstrating Desolate Shrine’s exceptional ability to sound simultaneously grandiose, atmospheric, and punishingly brutal. Third track “Desolate Shrine” lurches forwards in slow 3/4 time like some hellish waltz, torturing you for nearly ten minutes before allowing you the release of “Death” (aka track four). This is the shortest song on the album (save for the intro) yet still lasts for over six minutes; the longest song, “We Dawn Anew,” is almost fifteen minutes. Fortunately it contains just about enough variety to hold your interest despite maintaining the atmosphere of claustrophobic misery, including a mournful piano intro, blasting outro and the kind of gloomy quiet interludes Ahab do so well.
Desolate Shrine prioritize atmosphere over riffs, though not to the same extent as, say, Portal. There are distinct guitar lines and some headbanging moments to be had, but the songs are not independently all that distinctive (excepting “We Dawn Anew” simply for its length). This is reflected in the fantastic production, which isn’t so much a wall of sound as a mountain of noise. The thick guitars and bass swirl around with the perfect amount of distortion and reverb to allow the intricacies to be heard, but only if you’re really listening. By contrast, the punchy but natural drums ensure maximum heaviness and prevent the sound from becoming too washed out. The vocals are another highlight, with both the lower and higher growls sounding suitably inhuman. The overall aural aesthetic is similar to Grave Miasma’s Odori Sepulcrorum or even Sulphur Aeon’s Swallowed by the Ocean’s Tide, though the music itself is quite distinct from these comparisons.
My only real criticism is that the whole thing goes on a bit too long. While the band manage to sound more varied than many of their atmospheric death peers, a little more diversity in the songwriting is needed when your record’s running time is over an hour, and when you don’t really help the listener out by offering any hooks. But then I suspect that the Netherworld can be a monotonous and tuneless place IRL, so perhaps this is the perfect representation. I am a fan of sticking to your concept, after all.
The Heart of the Netherworld sees Desolate Shrine improve on their already impressive previous releases, perfecting their formula of doom-laden bludgeoning and setting a high bar for death metal in 2015. I count myself pretty lucky that fate dealt me this album to sooth my congested head rather than that other January death metal release from Grymm’s new favorite band. Poor Grymm.