A lone cello sings a mournful melody in a minor key. Fluttering piano touches accentuate the subtle tremolando strings. The folksy piece develops patiently, oscillating between an ambient sort of vagueness and a nervous incisiveness. While the surprising first two and a half minutes of Bavaria’s Venenum’s full-length début Trance of Death stand in contrast with the carnage that will follow, they are also perfect archetypes of the eclecticism and compositional strength of the release as a whole. “Entrance” is anything but a vanilla intro to a metal record and Venenum is anything but a run-of-the-mill death metal band.
Instead, the foursome’s style — in its core a variation on death metal — is hard to label. While there are many metal outfits that consume stylistic elements from various genres and reduce them to a jumbled mess (Between the Buried and Me, for one), Venenum craft an approach that’s neither death nor black metal while being fundamentally both and more. Fluid in their motion through different parts of the sonic spectrum, they exist in a state of eternal uncertainty, never quite settling in the tropes of any specific sub-genre. Yet, they instill a sense of cohesiveness and homogeneity throughout. The vacuum between a tremolo-driven section dominated by raspy, maleficent vocals and a slow doom throb or post-rockish plateau will thus be filled with painfully canorous leads and fiery solos. But this carousel of styles is never exhausting. And after the shocking shift from the solemn “Entrance” to the massacre of “Merging Nebular Drapes,” Trance of Death begins its true ritual dance. Blood rushes to the head as the song itself blitzes in with changes in rhythm and tempo reminiscent of Coroner, intricate riffs and progressions that somehow remain tuneful, and a slower middle section filled with faux-maudlin melody.
As the album unfurls, the cuts flow from one extreme to another. The chaos and brutal force of “The Nature of the Ground” births the andante of “Cold Threat,” only to be reawakened, thrashing, in the form of a massively propulsive bellicoso. These transitions always feel organic, as if the disparate track parts could not have been connected any other way. But the real gem and the album’s crowning point is incarnated in the notes of the poignant three-part suite “Trance of Death.” It’s a nearly half-hour long epic that unfolds from the insanity and harmonic convolution of “Part I – Reflections,” then plunges into tranquility with the contemplative and strikingly beautiful “Part II – Metanoia Journey,” and climaxes with the spiraling “Part III – There Are Other Worlds…” Within the chef-d’œuvre that is Trance of Death, this final song becomes its own microcosm. It demonstrates an almost symphonic character as it evolves, with movements filled with inspired riffing, meandering but never dull instrumental parts, and, in turns, disquieting and stirring acoustic interludes. The closing few minutes alone, led by a lingering crescendo and a consonance of instruments, conjure up a perfect storm of schmaltz and musical excellence.
Another rare feat that Trance of Death succeeds in is to be gripping and accessible from the very first listen, whilst it also provides numerous labyrinths to explore during repeated listens. The album is exquisite from beginning to end. There’s psychedelia aplenty sparkled with captivating lunacy, there is the spaced-out but complex atmosphere that brings Oranssi Pazuzu and Inquisition to mind (as their peers, not influences), and there is always a crushing, crusty aggression hidden beneath the occasional saccharine exterior. Even if the musicianship and performances of all four members are commendable, it’s the songwriting that makes this technically challenging record work so well. In that sense, I’m reminded of Skáphe, since both groups see technicality as a means to an end, a necessity of their musical vision.
Six years in the making, Trance of Death is not only Venenum’s triumph, but a near-masterpiece of (death) metal. As any great album, it threatens to influence and reshape the landscape, while it carves out a new niche. A potential future classic.