One of the most frustrating trends in modern death metal is the influx of these so-called “cavernous” bands – groups that huddle together around the altar of Incantation, strumming buzzy nothing riffs over indecipherable grizzly bear vocals, apparently recording everything through two layers of drywall using microphones caked with dried mud. They’re all maniacally focused on conjuring a dark and otherworldly atmosphere, but utterly incapable of writing a single memorable song (I’m looking at you, Teitanblood). The resulting works, usually heralded by underground diehards for two or three months after release only to be forgotten at year’s end, are like bowls of oatmeal. They’re vaguely sweet-tasting, they’ll satisfy your hunger for something heavy, but ultimately, they’re just bland heaps of gray pulp to be washed down with orange juice and forgotten. Fortunately, Montreal’s Phobocosm, while treading the same stylistic grounds, turn away from these Incantation worshippers to concoct something of actual merit. Featuring former members of Vengeful (the Canadian Ulcerate soundalikes), debut Deprived showcases strong musicianship and competent songwriting in a well-executed ode to hopelessness and horror.
It’s a horror you can practically taste. Actually, Deprived is one of few death metal albums I’ve heard in recent years where the riffs are both compositionally enjoyable and convey a true sense of unease. Instrumental opener “Sleep Deprivation” primes the listener with distant incoherent mumbling (possibly a destitute soul describing his hallucinations after four days locked in a sarcophagus listening to this album on repeat), but it’s not until the steady, vaguely melodic doom riffs creep in a minute later that utter dreadfulness descends. The walking-corpse tempo isn’t maintained, however – for the next 45 minutes the guitars weave together and burst apart through clearly defined climaxes and valleys, alternately howling and roaring in tandem like the three heads of Cerberus, lurching over drumming that fluidly accelerates into blasting or slams to a bone-shattering crawl. The fretwork teeters on dissonance, but, similar to Immolation, remains deceptively catchy and never slips over the edge. Particularly notable is first-half highlight “Solar Storm;” its urgent jerking verse the aural equivalent of a mad cult leader gesticulating wildly over a crowd of robed zealots. If Ulcerate were left to rot in a catacomb for three decades, this might be the result.
Things wouldn’t be as dread-inducing, however, without Colin Marston’s production (the same gentleman who mixed and mastered the debut of blogosphere darlings Artificial Brain earlier this year – great stuff, but can we get a new Krallice album already?). The sound treads a knife edge between rawness and clarity, kicking up dust in the tomb with immense ground-shaking drumming and a guitar tone like a thundering murmur – best exemplified by the chilling sustained notes in “Drowned.” With nary a discernable melody in sight, the mix is a perfect vehicle for the doomy trudges, malicious clean picking, and disjointed chords to combine in a spectacle of abject horror.
The largest flaw here isn’t even entirely the band’s fault. With a horde of contemporaries clamoring to produce a similar sound, Deprived – while competent in its own right – feels a bit too familiar to be a landmark work. Moreover, Phobocosm don’t entirely sidestep the pitfalls of their peers. The subterranean growled vocals are straight off-the-shelf, lacking a real identity and being borderline incomprehensible (a shame, because the lyrics are quite good). Later songs, including “Awaken Consciousness,” also suffer a bit from the dreaded heard-this-riff-before syndrome, an indicator that more time spent writing before entering the studio could have resulted in something even greater.
Regardless of its flaws, Deprived is still a commendable release that beckons subsequent listens. If Ulcerate is the sound of the universe collapsing into itself and Immolation is the sound of earth collapsing into hell, then Phobocosm is the sound of one’s mind collapsing into insanity, subjected to years of hopelessness and finally overwhelmed with a Lovecraftian sense of cosmic insignificance. Deprived indeed – deprived of light, happiness, or maybe deprived of the will to live, always dreading tomorrow and ever aware of that bleak undercurrent beneath each passing moment. Death metal that invokes such feelings doesn’t appear often. Recommended? Yes. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I need a warm blanket and someone to tell me everything is okay.