The times they are a changing! If you were around for my review of Morbus Chron‘s 2011 opus Sleepers in the Rift, you know how impressed I was with their Autopsy-laden salute to early American death metal. That album was a sewage leak of nastiness and I still spin it often. Naturally, I expected more of the same with this follow up, but I didn’t get it. Not even close. That’s because Sweven (yea olde English for “visions”) is an enormous departure in style and approach, veering off into the world of proggy, tripped out weirdness, while somehow still remaining death metal. I’m not upset by this startlingly development though, because this album is a triumph of creativity over genre expectations and conventions. At times, it’s strange like latter day Enslaved, at others, beautiful and moody, terrifying and flat-out bizarre. This is the most extreme, yet successful right turn by a death metal band since 2013s Tribulation‘s Formulas of Death (which we shamefully missed reviewing) and the end result is actually better.
The new table is set admirably by “Berceuse,” which marries the soundtrack to a nightmare with offbeat, ambient black metal doodling. The real freak festival kick off with “Chains,” which borrows extensively from Enslaved‘s Ruun and Veterbrae eras while mixing in Voivod-esque, off-kilter riffs and time changes that aren’t overly technical, but keep everything twitchy and on edge. They also shoehorn in a subtle black metal vibe and even include a trippy, almost folksy segment that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hexvessel album. “Towards a Dark Sky” showcases a boatload of wildly corkscrewing riffs that bring to mind the glory days of Coroner, placed right alongside forlorn (and occasionally epic) black metal trems and blast-beats. At almost eight minutes, this one takes you on quite a dizzying voyage, but it never gets dull.
Other captivating tunes include “It Stretches in the Hollow” with its very Agalloch-like, introspective noodling, the rocked out riff-fest that is “Ripening life,” and the anguished black metal meets New Age rock of “The Perennial Link,” which starts out heavy and nasty before giving way to increasing melody, including beautiful flamenco guitar work and nifty bass runs. The highlight to me is “Beyond Life’s Sealed Adobe” and its wild mish-mash of doom-rock, NWoBHM, primitive death-thrash and old Fates Warning riffs. The song meanders off in so many directions, but somehow hangs together for a cerebral thrill ride loaded with rocking jams, melodic solos and the tortured screams of the damned, which usually don’t sit this well alongside rocking jams (check out the tasty riff at 1:08). A close second is the strange pairing of grandiose doom with sullen post-rock on Terminus, which channels the best of the highly unsung Landforge and presses all my post-whatever buttons.
One of the most noticeable shifts on Sweven is the way Robert Andersson’s vocals are used so sparingly this time. He has a very slight presence on some of the songs and there are long interludes where the band relies on their music to speak for them. This often makes Sweven seem like an instrumental album, but since the music is so damn cool, it doesn’t hurt the experience. When Andersson’s vocals do show up, his raw, death/black rasps and shrieks are effectively grim and unpleasant (though somewhat buried in the mix). Sweven is really all about the guitar work of Edvin Aftonfalk and Andersson and wow, do they take the listener on a riffy tour de force. They pack every song with stylistic twists and turns and throw so much at you, it takes several focused spins to get your head around what’s going on. Add a top-notch performance by Dag Landin (bass) and Adam Lindmark (drums) and you’re bound to be impressed by how tight these cats are.
Take note, this isn’t anywhere near as heavy as Sleepers in the Rift and their experimentation comes at the expense of overall brutality. Additionally, that old school death charm is all but completely gone. Still, this isn’t what I’d call an easy listening album, and though it has some surprisingly beautiful musical moments, its schizophrenic tone and harsh vocals keep it plenty freaky and kvlt. Making up for the decline in heaviness is the sheer growth factor this thing possesses. Every spin reveals new layers and details to the musical labyrinth and compels you to dig deeper.
I love when a band re-invents themselves so completely without alienating my affections, and this musical boob job has me all atwitter. Sweven will go down as one of the strangest death metal outings of 2014, and likely one of the best too. Unique, daring, diverse, unusual and challenging, but totally listenable. That’s quite an accomplishment and Morbus Chron deserves a lot of praise for what they pulled off here. Change is good (sometimes).