Until a few years ago, I didn’t realize that technical death metal was even a thing. Sure, I’d heard it before, but in my simple mind, tech-death was merely death metal that goes “clickity-clickity click and noodly-noodly nood, and sometimes has a bass that goes farty-farty fart.” As you can imagine, I was relieved to find out that there’s a shorter way to describe this genre. Sometimes I listen to tech death more for the appreciation of the musical talent than for the enjoyment of the songs themselves, but when I saw Tech Trek earlier this year, I became sold on just how fun this music and the people that make it can be. So, when British techsters Cognizance invited everyone to the housewarming party for their debut Malignant Dominion, I immediately RSVP’d “Yes” and grabbed a five-pack of beer to share.
Cognizance doesn’t waste any time showing us what kind of party we can expect to find when we arrive at their Malignant Dominion. Opening instrumental “Nocturnal Emission” drops a load of thrash riffs and sprays some melodic arpeggios over the top, a combination that carries over into first proper track “A Lesson Through Sickness.” “The Organic Citadel” takes on a strong melodeath style, complete with fantastic leads and a soaring solo from the record’s standout performer Alex Baillie. He does some proggy noodling on “Unforeseen Circumstances” and dishes out the album’s most technical offering “Ether of the Void” with the aid of drummer David Diepold’s manic performance.
There are a number of guest appearances on Malignant Dominion and they range from the unnoticeable to the great. “The Organic Citadel” is elevated by the vicious roaring of Derek Rydquist (The Faceless), and embed “Strychnine Shift” becomes the album’s best moment with the help of its insane thrash intro, bludgeoning deathcore, a vocal spot by Job for a Cowboy‘s Jonny Davy, and a solo from Mendel bij de Leij (ex-Aborted). The almost title track “Malignant Domain” becomes another highlight thanks to some clean singing and a solo from Extol‘s Ole Børud, whose effortlessly smooth voice creates a nice contrast on an album that can tend towards the homogenous at times. And there lies the problem with Malignant Dominion — by the time closer “An Existential Battle” rolls around, I find myself having to fight to maintain my concentration. Part of this fatigue emerges from the fact that while there is deathcore aesthetic to the Cognizance sound, there isn’t quite enough groove to capitalize on that aspect. How often do you find a reviewer asking for more breakdowns?
I have to admit that, in general, I find albums that incorporate a large number of guest vocalists off-putting, and I think that Cognizance have done themselves a disservice by going down that road on their debut album. A band’s debut is a chance to establish an identity, and this opportunity has been missed on Malignant Dominion, making “An Existential Battle” (also my least favorite track) a sadly ironic title. There are some really good, memorable moments to be found here (“The Organic Citadel,” “Malignant Domain,” and “Strychnine Shift”), but many of them coincide with the presence of a guest vocalist, leaving me wondering what the band would sound like on a full album without all the extra help.
Cognizance have the tools to succeed in the tech game, and their melodic thrashcore approach gives them a chance to stand out from the big names in the genre. But a chance isn’t much good unless it’s taken. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the music on Malignant Dominion and fans of all things tech will probably find a lot to like here. The record has quite a few good moments, but the lack of a stable identity has rendered the record’s 29 minutes a collection of songs rather than a cohesive album. I’d be interested to hear what the band can do in the future without the help of guests, but this malignant domain has left me with a benign taste in my ear.