It’s easy to wonder if death metal is currently in the midst of an existential crisis. In one sense, it perpetually is; its obsession with mortality is such that everyone from Martin Heidegger to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine would tell the genre to chill out a bit. On the other hand, the acts that find themselves popular with critics wear a different sort of existential crisis on their sleeves, one of existential malaise. As one should always be wary of virtually everything that critics (along with intellectuals and “experts”) tell them, everyone ought to be extremely cautious about the “future” of death metal and the current state of the classic sound. Norway’s Execration is one of the bands in the thick of this existential crisis, and their third record Return to the Void is more interesting in this sense than in a musical one.
Death metal’s existential malaise is analogous to a seemingly dry well: instead of digging deeper, more water is imported and dumped into the well from elsewhere because some think it’s run permanently dry. The excitement of novelty and the rush of unfamiliarity are used to counteract the apparently stagnant state of the genre, but there’s something missing. To my ears, it sounds more like a dilution of quality than an infusion of one, taking the focus away from an emphasis on tradition and mastery and placing it on taking influence from everything but the kitchen sink. Execration import black metal in the form of a more restrained Taake and black-thrash from a less fiery Aura Noir, stake some of their death metal trappings on the stylings of mid-period Opeth, take influence from the occult-rock stylings of Tribulation, play a dissonant brand of black metal akin to Thornesbreed, and also find it worthwhile to take from contemporaries like Necrovation and Horrendous as well.
Being the scattershot shepherd’s pie it is, Return to the Void has even more influences and aping than those named above. While this may appeal to those who think that excessive variety is a Really Good Thing, the record lacks one consistently good song due to this. “Eternal Recurrence” starts off on a convincing melody that sounds like NWoBHM as done by Carcass, and it had me chomping at the bit to hear more. This idea is abandoned for some second-rate Aura Noir stuff that lasts for the majority of the song, coupled with a remarkably tame take on Swe-death with a bunch of crust influence. It’s all over the place, and once the Noregs Vaapen plagiarism of “Hammers of Vulcan” started I had to double-check that it wasn’t the same extended song that goes essentially nowhere.
The most damning thing about Execration is their lack of identity. In true postmodern fashion, their only visible identity is not having one; they’re dabbling addicts, a true jack of all trades in band form. Instead of focusing their energies on being something like Taake mixed with a particular strand of death metal (which would be an interesting project), they sample from everywhere and implement it all without any expertise. Fall Out Boy’s American Beauty/American Psycho is an example of this dabbling done right, taking decades of popular culture and molding it into a modern clinic in writing massive pop-rock anthems. Execration is the opposite end of the spectrum, coming across like an excitable drunk at the bar starting all kinds of conversations about all things with all people, but finishing none of them and never really moving beyond surface level small talk. There’s nothing memorable here, and the sound of all of Return to the Void’s influences is that of mere facsimiles virtually all the time.
The production makes the malaise and confusion here all the more palpable. Execration removes the swampy, bass-heavy sound from old-school death metal, the razor-sharp guitars from black metal, and the subtleties of the prog influences of the overrated occult-rock scene and makes something akin to musical Melba toast. The bass sounds big at first, but the distortion eventually reveals itself to be precisely what Opeth did on Heritage, which lacks the visceral impact of later Asphyx’s bass tone completely. Frustratingly, every member of Execration is a talented musician who turns in a technically proficient performance, but like Rembrandt doing paint-by-numbers their talent seems wasted here. While I normally prefer more direct and precise analyses of a record, I couldn’t remember much of anything long enough here to delve deeply into it, which speaks volumes more than any dive into particular riffs ever could.