First, we have Fronch fries. And Fronch dressing. And Fronch bread. And Fronch death metal. And to drink, ta-da! Peru! As with most bands full of old guys like me, I have a long history with Mercyless. I received a cassette promo of 1993’s Coloured Funeral right after losing access to a free copy machine that put a nail in the coffin of the print version of Unchain the Underground. While I never got around to reviewing it, that particular slab of adventurous Fronch death metal stayed in regular rotation and made the cut through upgrades to CD right into the digital age. Now, when some people think of the French, if Groundskeeper Willie is to be believed (and he always is), they’re a bunch of cheese-eatin’ surrender monkeys. While the last thing I would EVER do is reinforce a stereotype, Mercyless mirrored their homeland’s surrender to Germany in WWII with their second and third Limburger-laden, So-Bad-They-Shall-Not-Be-Named albums in an attempt to cash in on the nu-metal craze. They had the good sense to put themselves on time out, moving over to the band Day Off Sin and subsequently winning the 2010 French Council of the Arts “What The Fucking Fuck??” award before mercifully putting that shitbag to bed and reforming under the leadership of original member Max Otero in 2011. 2013’s Unholy Black Splendor found them firmly returning to their dark death metal roots. Now, with the release their sixth full-length, Pathetic Divinity, on the cusp of their thirtieth anniversary, do Mercyless deserve pearls or a pearl necklace?
After brief requisite intro “Blood of Lambs,” the title track opens the proceedings with a funereal plod that could well serve as the march that accompanies the malevolent misfits following the trumpeting angel out of a vortex like the undead Pied Piper on the cover. Mercyless don’t rest long, blasting away at an F5 level for less than 15 seconds before pulling the tempo back for a double-bass drenched chugging verse. The chorus name drops Deicide‘s excellent 2006 return to form, and then the first real curveball hits post-chorus with a deliciously disgusting melodic interplay between bass and guitars right off of Mental Funeral. That visceral slime peppers all of Pathetic Divinity, much to its benefit.
It’s their ability to take from various sub-genres of death metal and forge them into something that incorporates the best of them without diluting any one in particular that proves Mercyless‘s most formidable skill. “My Name is Legion” is a perfect example. A dual guitar harmony over a riff that sounds like an angry swarm of yellow jackets meshes a moment of beauty with one of menace, then the thrashy kick-snare verse leads to perhaps the tastiest and most downright malevolent moment of the whole album – a spine-tingling chorus that’s equally noisome and nefarious with sparse keyboards accentuating the guitars to a haunting effect. “Left to Rot” finds them at their most Scandinavian. It’s an old school barbaric basher that wouldn’t be out-of-place on Left Hand Path or Into the Grave. “How Deep Is Your Hate,” showcases a tasteful blend of unhinged ferocity and aching melody, particularly during the guitar solos where the lead work shines brightly. The band, and especially drummer Laurent Michalak (who was also somehow in Day Off Sin), provide a perfect backdrop, embellishing the playing of Gautier Merklen and Otero rather than just providing a flat canvas for them to colo(u)r.
As with last year’s excellent The Unburiable Dead from Ares Kingdom, the production is very live and the sound of fingers swishing on strings is audible throughout, helping to keep things warm and organic. The inclusion of Otero’s deep inhalation before the frenzied tirade that opens “A Representation of Darkness” is another such touch. Vocally, the man is a monster, able to keep pace with George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher at his most manic but also with range enough from a snarled rasp to scraping the very bowels of hell with a monstrous roar. Bassist Matthieu Merklen’s playing is tasteful and his sound cuts through the guitars when he varies from them and thickens things when he plays for the team.
Brutality gave Floridian death metal a strong dose of Cialis with Sea of Ignorance earlier this year, and now Mercyless have unleashed a beast with Pathetic Divinity that not only wipes the slaughterhouse floor with their own discography to date, but much of what has been released since death metal’s peak. The Satan thing in metal has been done far beyond death. For a band to interject this much vitality back into a genre that all but descended into self-parody when Deicide recorded “Kill the Christian” two decades ago is not just impressive, it’s downright miraculous. As is adding two albums from 2016, both guaranteed to stand the test of time, to the lexicon of death metal.