Ashen – Ritual of Ash Review

One of my good friends hates Dutch tilts. His vehemence against the technique stems from its serial overuse, especially in the horror genre. Much like him, struggling to love anything that generously applies Dutch tilts, I struggle to love much of HM-2 death metal. Outside of the classics and a few modern upstarts, this particular guitar tone, for whatever reason, brings with it an overused set of songwriting tropes that render many albums of this style totally forgettable. Australian newcomers Ashen aim to change my mind with their debut record, Ritual of Ash.

One thing that I appreciate about Ashen’s approach to gritty, buzzsaw death is their restraint. This is not a word we typically associate with anything under the metal umbrella, but it’s a perfect fit for Ritual of Ash. Everything here is tight, controlled, concise and simple. Chunky riffs sure to please any crowd, vocals that are equal parts disgusting and comprehensible, and a delightfully straightforward drumming performance conspire to upend my general apprehensive attitude towards new HM-2 death metal records. The mixing is equally satisfying, featuring a deep, rumbling low end and a full-bodied midrange which together bring warmth and depth to the final product. Compositions pull from a variety of influences, from the usual HM-2 suspects (Entombed, Dismember, et al) to modern favorites like Carnation, Helslave, and Wombbath. You’ll also detect notes of thick groove reminiscent of Repulsion and a doom-laden eeriness that recalls the eldritch slime of early Slugdge.

Ritual of Ash’s best moments provide ample evidence of Ashen’s ability to write satisfying material. My personal favorites, “Threshold,” “Embrace Extinction,” and “Gravemind” have completely different personalities, but all hit the mark. The first is a raucous stomp coated in vomit and other assorted filth, infinitely headbangable riffs grooving deep into my brain and leaving nothing but fine dining and breathing in its wake. “Embrace Extinction” is a beast, but one of gloom and doom. Grimy chugs scrape across my flesh in a desperate attempt to escape the muck in which they trudge, but a thick air of dread keeps all hope obscured. Yet, the song is such a memorable march that it sticks long after I’ve finished the record. “Gravemind” is the wild child of the group. It’s fast, it’s furious, and it features one of the coolest harmonized riffs I’ve heard this side of Agma. Nothing technical or flowery occurs here, but this track’s ripping guitar work clearly shows a band holding back from overplaying for the sake of more memorable—and arguably better—material.

Simplicity is Ritual of Ash’s greatest virtue, maximizing the album’s fun factor and sense of weight. However, it also reveals a consistency issue in some of the less exemplary songs on offer. Opening duo “Ritual” and “Deadsight” are perfect for each other, one stomping leisurely towards its altar while the other ramps up the intensity to build more momentum into the regal “Harbinger.” On the other hand, closing duo “Buried in Ice” and “Inhuman” aren’t as well integrated into the runtime. More specifically, they feel tacked on after the ripping tear of “Gravemind.” This effect is particularly odd because it isn’t like these two tracks don’t share a thematic link with everything else here. It’s more like they coast on the energy of their preceding album-mate to wrap everything up. In doing so, they miss big opportunities to leave their own mark. The same is true with mid-album couplet “Blood” and “Cursed Rebirth.” These tracks are stronger by a smidge compared to the penultimate track and closer, but they also coast on the hype generated by highlight “Threshold” in the hopes that listeners won’t lose interest before “Embrace Extinction” roars to life.

Keep in mind that Ritual of Ash contains no truly weak songs—only weaker ones when compared to their strongest album companions. In all, Ritual of Ash is a tight, tectonic slab of HM-2 flavored rot. I can’t say it’s changed my mind about the subgenre at large, but Ashen have a bright future ahead of them if this first salvo is any indication. I look forward to being there when their next ritual summons me once more.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 256 kbps mp3
Label: Bitter Loss Records
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: January 13th, 2023

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