At this point in 2017, a year already subject to a burgeoning tornado of death metal souls, the genre is hardly in need of a qualitative shot in the arm. Regardless, after seven years in the ether, none other than Decrepit Birth have descended to lend their technical muscle to the array of perennial brutalities, with fourth album Axis Mundi and a semi-reconstructed line up. With a new core comes a new horizon, and this latest record plumps for some subtle alterations when compared with its Schuldiner-infused brethren, offering something of an atavistic throwback to uglier and arguably more dangerous incarnations. A band this proficient is, I suspect, barely capable of producing anything definitively poor, so the real question here is less: is it any good? but rather: just how good is it?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is: pretty damn good. The slight differences, particularly in comparison to previous record, Polarity, are immediately noticeable. Axis Mundi puts a lot of stock in its rhythm section; guitarist Matt Sotelo’s deconstructed and otherworldly riff/solo tandem has always been the focal point of the band, slathering them with a melodic fluidity that often gave the material a certain mercurial nature. Now instead, is a much denser delivery that co-opts the melodicism and enforces the lofty cosmic album concept with bloody knuckles as well as presence of mind. “Vortex of Infinity” opens the album with one jagged staccato riff after another and offers an early glimpse into the record’s brutish nature. Newcomers, drummer Sam Paulicelli and bassist Sean Martinez, deftly make themselves known – the latter’s sentient bass lines are quick to pry open any available auditory space, deeply burying themselves in the album’s DNA.
Offering something of a transition, “Spirit Guide” is an early point of comparison when considering the depth the band are capable of in the face of such stolid heaviness. Somehow contemplative in its proficiency, the track sees immaculately layered keys meet progressive leads for a culmination of epic riff-scapes. It’s a first look at how well-developed the album is, a trend that continues into “Hieroglyphic,” monstrous in its technicality and lashed ever-onward by the metallic tongue of Martinez’s exhaustive bass. Bill Robinson puts in his usual solid performance of low throat-dwelling growls, but it’s here that I come to my first real complaint. Axis Mundi is perhaps the first of the band’s records that doesn’t singularly feel like a showcase for Sotelo’s enviable guitar slinging, so it’s disappointing that, on what is arguably his most open platform, Robinson misses his opportunity to etch his own unique signature into the material. While his vocals don’t diminish the music in any way, they also fail to elevate it – compounded by some odd production choices that sees his gutturals neutered by an unfortunate muffling effect. With much of their back-catalog being just as enjoyable were it instrumental – the churning riff-work here would have been a prime moment for him to truly feature.
With a production meant to highlight the record’s heft, Axis Mundi sounds unapologetically heavy and distinctly different to the polish and shine of Polarity. Although crashing in at continent sinking DR 3, it’s clear that the production choice is meant to accent the record’s emphasis on its death metal credentials, to which it certainly succeeds. Sam Paulicelli’s surgically precise drumming propels the lacerating velocity of “Ascendant” before Sotelo slips into another gravity-defying solo, eventually paving the way for the tumultuous current of bass lines that underpins penultimate track, “Epigenetic Triplicity.” This is surely one of the band’s heaviest cuts replete with overwhelming technicality designed only, and successfully, to savage your very being. It’s a last and thorough pummeling before the record’s cinematic finale, the instrumental “Embryogenesis,” which returns to the themes explored in “Spirit Guide” with larger than life orchestrations and sweeping guitar lines that bring the record to a grandiose end.
Decrepit Birth are, at this point, a death metal institution, and one who enjoys the enviable position of having absolutely nothing to prove. Axis Mundi is certainly no exception to the rule and another crucial inclusion into an already potent discography. Although only time will tell how much I reach for this album over its predecessor, I can assure that a seven-year absence has done nothing to dull the thirsty edge the band have spent their entire career honing. Although not exactly a breath of new life for a veteran band, Axis Mundi is no last gasp, either; it’s a vital draught of air from an assured machine, whose decrepit birth has since wrought bones of iron.