The disturbing rumble of old school, dark and brooding death metal is a familiar one. Burrowing, buzzing riffs, inhuman growls, and tumultuous drums and bass lines are encased in a constant, over-the-top imagery of torture and dread. But why are we so attracted to this blacker than black despair and sense of suffocation? Analogous to theories about the appeal of horror fiction, maybe it’s a different chimera for each of us—one filled with the thrill of enjoying something filthy and forbidden for some, a way to descend into rebellious nihilism for others, or just a crude tool to reinforce life-positive values through projected Schadenfreude1. “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream,” wrote Shirley Jackson in her novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” Perhaps, then, it’s simply the genre’s primal, nightmarish design which calls to us, the sinister yet comfortably safe form of escapism from the banality of everyday life in a world that doesn’t allow jubilant fantasies. Whatever the case may be, the début Appalling Ascension by Portuguese quintet The Ominous Circle seems like a perfect specimen of its kind, a prototype for how ghoulish metal should sound.
But The Ominous Circle are not one trick unicorns. Even if vestiges of early Morbid Angel, Incantation, and Immolation are easily traced through their music, the carefully written songs follow broken, oft surprising paths. Whilst they progress, they carve out a massive, wall-crushing sound supported by an absolutely exquisite production and mastering—courtesy of Ricardo Oliveira and Tore Stjerna—only to tear everything down in cunningly positioned breaks. Apart from the introductory “Heart Girt with a Serpent” and the intermezzo “Ateg Gibor Le-Olam Adonal,” both mired by typical and tedious temperaments of “atmospheric tunes,” the sixth remaining tracks are self-contained miniatures with organic, faultless flows. This includes “From Endless Chasms” and its relentlessly ripping guitars, buried tremolos, screaming leads, and a solo that devolves from earworm-like melody into Slayer-inspired chaos; it continues with the thunderous “Poison Fumes” whose slow, almost static roll is supported by blazingly fast riffing; and concludes with the epic, vignette-from-hell “Consecrating His Mark.” No fillers here, all of the songs might as well have been selected as singles.
But it’s the central triptych of “A Gray Outcast,” “To En,” and “As the Worm Descends” that makes the record and shows how apt The Ominous Circle are in their songwriting. They drift into death-doom territories, caressing the brutality of swirling, layered riffs, only to propel themselves forward at breakneck speeds. As growled and hissed vocals interleave, the beautiful guitar tone keeps filling the electrified aether left behind by the rhythmically motley, excellent drumming and bombastic bass lines. The shifts between intensities of gloom are gradual and subtle, pulling the listener carefully in while pushing out wonky, fluttering sections. Ultimately, the music spirals into a crawling tempo that circles through start-stop segments and ominous marching. Throughout, these cuts unfold gradually, even when it seems they’re rushing towards the brink of a precipice. Because of their time expanding quality, they become labyrinthine, snares set to trap minds, never to release them.
Aside from the aforementioned two shorter pieces, the intro and interlude, that don’t bring anything special to the table but don’t detract from the record’s value either, there aren’t any serious negatives to point out. Even long tunes such as the closing “Consecrating His Mark” are constantly deviating and dynamic in their strut that avoids sounding overwrought and instead underlines the album’s cohesiveness. These are signs of painstaking care that has been put into making this release an integrated entity, rather than a mere collection of songs. The only thing that one could hold against The Ominous Circle is their imitative recognizability—also reflected in the run-of-the-mill themes dealing with death and spirituality—that acts as a double-edged sword. It makes them palatable and catchy as hell, but also opens them to criticism from those that demand innovation at all costs.
It’s simple, really. Appalling Ascensions is really good death metal. Nothing more, nothing less. Go listen.