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.

Rating: Very good!
DR: 11 [Vinyl Master] | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: 20 Buck Spin | Osmose Productions
Releases Worldwide: January 27th, 2017

Show 1 footnote

  1. And then there are also those among us who are just sadistic psychopaths.
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  • antitayyip

    metal up to their ass

  • André Snyde Lopes

    Yay, spheres are back!

    • Zach Ward

      We had top 10 unicorns at the end of the year why not top 10 spheres?!! >:|

      • Carlos Marrickvillian

        Spheres are so 2014.

        • Zach Ward

          Spheres > Unicorns

  • El_Cuervo

    mmm this sounds particularly vitriolic. I like it.

  • Martin Knap

    the dark at the end of the tunnel is a unicorn

    • hallowed

      Could be worse. It could come to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel is just a freight train coming your way…[cue the violins].

  • Did you just review the vinyl master?

    • Roquentin

      There was no indication that this was some type of special master in our promo copy. They might be going with this one for all releases? The songs on Bandcamp seem to have the same mastering.

    • Monsterth Goatom

      Death Metal with a DR 11, eh? Maybe all hope isn’t lost.

      • Aguy

        I’m loving how much depth and texture there is in the mix. Whatever it loses in in-your-face brooootality it gains in vastness. Big kudos to the sound guys.

  • hallowed

    I love the smell of my money being taken by some anonymous band in the morning.

  • Jrod1983

    This is terrific. Great songs, sound, and a large sphere.
    An obvious must buy.

  • Monsterth Goatom

    The Lord and Master’s finger must have trembled indecisively over the “Unicornize” button when that band photo came in.

    • [not a Dr]

      They symbolically unicorned themselves with the stone-carved dildos on top of the building.

  • Thatguy

    This does sound very good, and the band photo is immune to criticism. Thanks for the review.

  • Kronos

    This is fucking cool.

  • Treble Yell

    Oh man, I’m totally checking this out when I get home. Beautiful review as always, Roquentin.

  • AndySynn

    Ooh, I’ve been looking forward to this one quite a bit.

    • Roquentin

      One of the strongest debuts I’ve heard in recent years.

  • 20 Buck Spin? More like 20 Buck WIN, amirite?!

    • Roquentin

      Will you show yourself out, please?

  • Alexandre Barata

    The beginning of 2017 is going strong here in Portugal, The Ominous Circle and Analepsy’s full albums, great stuff!

    • herrschobel

      a fucking mazing !

  • dduuurrrr dddduuuurrrr

    So 3 metal releases (Emptiness, TGOO, and this) and 1 non metal release (The XX) in January that I’m very excited about? Let’s keep up to momentum of good music this year please!

    • Roquentin

      The three metal releases are good, the new The XX is crap unfortunately.

      • dduuurrrr dddduuuurrrr

        Oh I like it, but I’m new to them. Everyone I’ve mentioned it to says “not as good as their old stuff”

        • Roquentin

          Yep, not as good. But if you like it, who the hell cares what everyone else says. Do explore their earlier records, tho.

  • Ein Sophistry

    Love that bass tone. Nice ‘n filthy.

  • Gage

    I like it! This might be my first purchase of the year.

  • William Hebblewhite

    Embedded track sounds so good I made noises in public that are usually only reserved for my significant other.

  • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

    I could swear the second guy from the left has a huge moustache. WTF?

    • herrschobel

      no ! he is a walrus from a pitch black cthulhian depth .. heck.. than he most certainly has a moustache !

  • The Unicorn

    This is pretty damn crushing!

  • Treble Yell

    Just listened to the embedded track and yep, this is pretty darned great. Gonna buy the album.

  • Zac Melvin-McNutt

    Now this is sick! Cavernous death metal that doesn’t sacrifice riffs and songwriting for “suffocating” atmosphere. I can get behind this

  • Luke_22

    Really impressive sample track, this sounds right up my alley. Nice review.

  • contenderizer

    thiz greet

  • Carlos Marrickvillian

    Orbs are back baby!
    And this sounds good the embedded track is very cool.
    Wish listed!

  • herrschobel

    o wow…very good indeed.

  • Tofu muncher

    This DR goes to eleven.

  • Berit Dogg

    Would all the sadistic psychopaths present please announce themselves?

  • Plutarch X

    I slept with faith and found a corpse in my arms on awakening; I drank and danced all night with doubt and found her a virgin in the morning…

  • “to En” is absolutely epic.

    I disagree about the intro though. Grunts, screams and feedback does not make for a good intro. A minute would have been acceptable but four minutes? Padding that is completely unnecessary given the quality of the proper songs.

  • jersey devil

    Damn, this is their debut album!? Really good death metal indeed (except the first song, lets not count that). And thanks to your review I learned a new word (schadenfruede), though I don’t think it is related to enjoyment of metal. Metalheads are the ones who are suffering in life; they aren’t the ones enjoying others suffering. It is our suffering I think that brings us to metal and is the source of our enjoyment of metal (for me anyway).