Xibalbá is the name of the Mayan underworld: not exactly a nice place, it must be said. A cave next to Alta Verapaz, somewhere in central Guatemala, is the entry to this domain whose hottest places, to quote none other than Dante Alighieri, “are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” If there’s a circle which refuses to stay neutral in favour of a purely negative stance, it’s a band from Southern California whose name, doom and gloom take us straight to the Mayan idea of hell [I don’t get it. What’s hell? Guatemala or Southern California? – AMG].
The recipe is relatively simple: tuned down guitars, guttural vocals, a slow pace coupled with intensely furious gallops and crushing riffs. But hasn’t this all been done before by the likes of Crowbar, Crisis and, why not, Morbid Angel? Indeed, and one must be at pains to stress that nothing on Hasta la Muerte is new as there is not even a single note that is glamorously innovative on the whole Xibalba discography.
After all, the premise of their previous effort, “Madre mía, Gracias por los Días” was clear: “mix hardcore and doom and see what happens”, but that attitude didn’t pay because the final product ended up being disappointing and banal, and lyrics such as: “Fuck the world it’s just me now, and I’m after you / Nothing will save you, eye for an eye / Finger on the trigger, barrel to your head. / It would be better if you were dead” didn’t do much to save the day.
The difference this time is all in the songwriting. Whereas with their debut album, the mixture of two genres only apparently antithetical appeared unnatural and deprived of any hint of deeper reasoning, the dynamism behind this alternation is the consequence of a more mature process on the new effort. And it can be heard when the band manages to make its music flow, like in “Lujuria” – almost a hardcore suite – or the low and slow “Burn.” The good thing about Xibalba is that the word ‘compromise’ doesn’t seem to appear in their dictionary. The bad thing is that it may be the reason Hasta la Muerte will not be remembered in the years to come. The music is one-dimensional; as it rigidly develops within the aforementioned patterns and the nihilism which graciously accompanies us throughout the 55 minutes of the album is a colorless monolith whose magnitude stretches from emphasis to boredom, while we are left dreaming of a deserved break [Translation: “I wish I’d had some moss to gaze at.” – AMG]. The only exception to these this, is the female, rawly gentle vocals on “Mala Mujer”, but it’s only a few minutes before we are thrown again into a moshpit of hatred and heaviness.
What fails to convince is the fact that the lack of dynamism makes the whole product a bit dull and plain. The tension of the first few tracks and the nicely crafted instrumental “The Flood” set a mood which is kept throughout the album. But what about the pathos? The changes needed to keep the tension alive and the compendium of violent idiosyncrasies and atmospheric escapism redolent of bands such as Converge, Refused and Botch from the 90s? Hardcore has evolved in many a direction since then, but Hasta La Muerte seems to follow the easy path of uncompromised integrity which ceased to be interesting when post-hardcore acts such as Old Man Gloom or Knut came into the spotlight.
Instead, what is great in Xibalba is what is left out: the band’s immense potential. A more mature songwriting coupled with awareness that Iggy Pop can say no wrong would indeed benefit the Southern Californian band. “Nihilism is best done by professionals”, the Iguana once said. And who are we to disagree? Hasta La Muerte is the bad intention that paves the road to destruction and all it needs is a band to follow it. Right until death.