My favorite moment of 2018 wasn’t buying a house. It wasn’t the Red Sox winning the World Series.12 It was trapping my wife and a friend in a car with Beaten to Death. “Don’t you know what this sounds like?” one groused over “Papyrus Containing the Spell to Summon the Breath of Life Enshrined in the Collected Scrolls of Sheryl Crow.” Yup: sweet chaos, the regurgitations of an insane asylum dousing itself in Pixy Stix and bath salts. The Norwegians’ 2015 masterclass Unplugged earned every bit of praise it received as it ruined thousands of scoliosis patients’ dreams of reaching the top shelf. I’ll say it up front: fourth record Agronomicon doesn’t top it, doesn’t even try. But don’t you dare to call it inferior; if anything, Agronomicon testifies to Beaten to Death‘s staying power as a force in the grind scene.
If you’ve never experienced the melogrind of Beaten to Death before, Agronomicon can be a very jarring experience. They’ve got every
kg/m/s bit of the hyper-kinetic momentum you’d expect from Napalm Death, but the presentation lands somewhere closer to Nails trying to cannibalize Deafheaven‘s stringy poser meat. “Grind Korn,” the first of many excellent song titles on the record, rumbles with such stomach-turning tremors that it sounds like the strings are about to slide off the bass, blasting, frothing, fuming. Only one of Beaten to Death‘s trademark melodies can stop the whole thing from devolving into war metal. The tonal shift might break your jaw, slamming in from out of nowhere to shake the song—and your expectations—apart at an atomic level.
Beaten to Death peel minutes off an hour better than any band out there, careening from the grindcore throwback of “Dere er herved oppløst” into the infectious groove of “Catch Twentyfvck.” A lot gets made of the top-tier catchiness of Beaten to Death‘s melodic layers, but “Catch Twentyfvck” represents the other side of their effectiveness. Its groove, brought to fruition by pitting down tempos, instrumental dropouts, and stomping vocal cadence against the usual fireworks, provides essential balance to Beaten to Death‘s game. King Kong jams like “Extremely Run to the Hills” still pack those delicious arpeggios, but the band doesn’t gun for all-timers like “Don’t You Dare to Call Us Heavy Metal” or “Robert Sylvester Kelly,” probably because they know those riffs have been burned into the nostalgic parts of our brains by now. Instead, highlights “Boy George Michael Bolton” and closer “Eternal Punished Septic” ride a darker line—not unwilling to utilize melody, but not beholden to it either. The songs are just as effective, but the alternate route makes all the difference here.
Unfortunately, the rank and file lose Agronomicon the most ground. That’s not much of a knock; “Bjørnstjerne Ibsen” and “Havregubbens dolk” may not be “Greenway/Harris” or “Death to False Grindcore,” but they still kick more ass than the best stuff off your favorite band’s records. But the remainder, the in-betweens, don’t have the same sublime quality as Unplugged. Were it longer, Agronomicon might lose points for the valleys between the peaks. Seeing as those valleys are at most two minutes long, it’s particularly hard to get stuck on them. Better yet, the performances never falter. Drummer Christian “Bartender” (Tsjuder) continues to churn out seat-of-his-ass performances that somehow keep up with the frenetic bass-axe connection of Mika Martinussen, Tommy Hjelm, and Martin Rygge. Their melodic discharge plays fast and loose most of the time, a side effect of recording live in studio that gives the record an organic feel. Anders Bakke’s vocals are still stuck on attack mode, more concerned with blowing your eardrums out than any overt brutality. And yet it’s hard to imagine anyone else fronting Beaten to Death as he’s got just the right ear for what tone, emphasis, cadence, and placement makes his vocals work best in the music.
Agronomicon isn’t a 5.0. That’s ok. Aiming for the landing pad when weathering Unplugged‘s post-high storm might be more important than gunning for another moonshot, and Beaten to Death definitely hit the bullseye. As I see it, Agronomicon cements their status as reigning grindcore champions. A pity for the field, but anyone who can challenge Oslo’s favorite sons, step right up. Not likely though. No other band sounds quite like Beaten to Death and I pity the fools who would try to.