The process of quantifying quality is always a capricious thing. I’m contrary by nature, so what I might allow for one band, I may use to vilify another, and we haven’t even begun to touch on the perils of genre favoritism — because, despite any reviewer’s very best attempts to consider a product on its individual merit, there will always be some material that I’ll subconsciously allow an extra furlong of leeway. The first wave of death metal, call it old-school, classic or even caveman, is a personal favorite of mine and I can always find the aural space for just one more pestilential riff. My own metal radar wouldn’t hone in until long after the initial movement’s rise and fall, but I spent much of my formative years basking in a make-shift musical microcosm of 1992, so the opportunity to review the new album by Morta Skuld, a band who were present at extremity’s inception, wasn’t lost on me; especially not in this age of myriad revivalist bands, whose quality, sadly, is not always guaranteed. A whopping 20 years after their last full-length, the poorly received Surface, and 3 years after the enjoyable EP Serving Two Masters, my interest was truly piqued to hear if the band could once again rub shoulders with their fellow scene stalwarts on comeback album Wounds Deeper Than Time.
It’s important to point out that the only remaining original member is vocalist and guitarist Dave Gregor, with the rest of Skuld‘s first full-length foray into the millennium being comprised mostly of new blood. “Breathe in the Black” heralds the start of the record, and finds itself in fine spirits. Swarming riffs buzz around a compound of thick, catchy thrash guitars and a great solo, something that has always helped propel the band through some of their more derivative moments. Similarly to the previous EP, there are two distinct styles on the record: one is a fairly thrash-inspired crunch with early Malevolent Creation and even some Resurrection in the riff department (thankfully minus the utterly appalling intro narrations), and the other is the kind of Tardy worshipping, mid-paced Obituary-core that the band earned their bones with in the first place. Those familiar chugs and even vocal patterns are clear on “Hating Life” with its repetitive refrain of the track’s title.
The album’s highlights, “Breath in the Black” and its thematic sibling, “Scars Within,” which will absolutely crush in a live setting, full of that semi-consensual violence we metalheads confuse with fun, are fiery, furious cuts, and breath an urgency that many bands of their age have settled for aping. But the problems start early on — Wounds Deeper Than Time suffers from the same venereal mediocre-itis that currently plagues much of Obituary‘s post-millennium work. The rot sets in to the point that “Against the Origin” sounds uncannily like Six Feet Under… and, well, that’s just not okay. So much of the same half-speed riffing and almost mantric vocal formulas preside over what should have been great songs. The title track stumbles around like some kind of Siamese twin — half face-melter, half palm muted groove. Drummer Eric House does his very best to liven up the more homogeneous moments by peppering them with intelligently distributed blast work, but it’s still not enough to stop some of the album’s flesh slipping down only half digested.
The real champion of the record is the mix. The drums sound huge but it’s the omnipresent metallic babble of AJ’s bass which lends a certain muscularity to some of the finer songs. “In Judgement” blurs by, frenetic and feral, and its abject juggernautery is made all the greater for the amorphous thunder-bass that underpins it. Production successes aside — the acoustic accompanied dual harmony that fades out the album has been clumsily, and lazily, bolted on to the end of closer “Becoming One Flesh” — a good track on its own that ends definitively, but without the transition to outro, the last minute of the album just feels like poor editing.
Make no mistake, after 20 years Morta Skuld have still got what it takes and there is, with one exception, no bad material on this album, but in a generation where this iteration of death metal is now defined as anachronistic, “not bad” isn’t good enough to woo the Epicurean masses. There’s a fantastic EP hiding inside Wounds Deeper Than Time; it simply depends on whether or not you have the carrion constitution to pick through the carcass.