Strap on the gauntlets and prepare to get dirty. Two years after their last album, California’s Gravehill are teaming up with Swedish trio Mordbrand to bring you nine tracks of teeth-gnashing, no-apologies death metal to get your head banging and your roommates finding somewhere else to live. Both bands have been toiling in the underground for over a decade, taking that time to build solid back catalogs and hone their own unique take on the style. As heard on 2014’s Death Curse, Gravehill specialize in riffy, thrashing, to-the-point metal that sounds like a more uncivilized version of Deceased or a more melodic version of Goatwhore. Mordbrand, meanwhile, showcased their Swedish roots on 2014 debut Imago by drawing comparisons to Dismember and Grave. Sounds like a rollicking good time and an exciting matchup, so let’s get started!
Gravehill kick things off with their Skullbearer side, and right away it’s obvious this is the same band that shoved dynamite up my ass with 2011’s When All Roads Lead to Hell. “By the Edge of Our Knives” bashes in with a bobbing melodic riff that repeats a note in sequence before twisting it down the scale, closing with a battering, thrashy finish and roars of ‘Feel our blades! Feel our fire!’ With the band’s typical ‘angry Muppet’ growls here in full force, I was actually surprised to learn that — among other lineup changes — former bassist ‘J.T. Corpse’ had stepped up on vocal duties with the departure of longtime member ‘Mike Abominator.’
Nevertheless, Gravehill’s other three songs show that the quintet hasn’t lost their mojo yet. “Away From the Light” shows the group’s knack for snappy rhythms, while “Redeemed in Blood” introduces frantic tremolos and diminished chords which recall second-wave black metal, before concluding with sweeping harmonized leads and solos that could have been pulled from an old Amon Amarth album. Music this straightforward demands to be catchy, and while these songs aren’t always as memorable as past works, there’re still a couple of fist-raising moments if you’re paying attention – most notably the repeated cries of ‘Death! Death! Hear the ancient bells!’ on closer “Upon the 6th Chime.” Topped off with a fiery and raw production, I’d chalk this side up as a win.
But while Gravehill largely offered what I expected from them – albeit slightly less polished – the real surprise came from Mordbrand. Somehow being halfway around the world wasn’t enough for the group to escape the shit-kicking influence of American bands like Arghoslent and Abominant, and I’m perfectly okay with that. Opener “Decimation Reigns” kicks in like a lost Incorrigible Bigotry B-side with its galloping NWoBHM-tinged riffing, swift melodic trills, and throaty growls that even sound like Arghoslent’s former vocalist ‘The Genocider.’ (Rest easy, the racist lyrics are thankfully absent).
Later tracks tone down this influence somewhat, with “Cold Womb” sounding more like Unleashed with its chilly strumming. Like Gravehill’s side, after the opener the songs aren’t quite as strong, but there’s still fun to be had in the squealing ascending licks of “Parishioners of the Bleeding (Storm Against Creation).” Mordbrand also end on a high note with their cover of the obscure Dutch band Bluuurgh…, whose track “Compost Christ” works remarkably well with its delightfully blunt chorus and quick punky drumming that offsets the blastbeats used on Mordbrand’s other cuts. The mix on this side remains just as heavy and incendiary but sounds a bit cleaner without entirely giving up the grit.
Is this the best thing I’ve heard this year? Maybe not. A few more standout riffs and memorable songs would have helped, but flourishes like the echoing bells on “Upon the 6th Chime” and the synthy outro of “Decimation Reigns” make for some cool touches that add a smidge of atmosphere. There’s certainly much worse out there, and for those looking for a taste of two lesser-known bands who put a little pizzazz in the typical death metal formula, this will do the job just fine.
DR: 6 [Gravehill Side]; 9 [Mordbrand Side] | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Doomentia Records
Websites: facebook.com/gravehill | facebook.com/officialmordbrand | mordbrand.bandcamp.com
Releases Worldwide: November 18th, 2016