In what is sure to be a heart-stopping shock to readers, I’m embarking upon a mid-length review of a brutal death metal album from Italy that I’m not terribly fond of. Gasp and swoon though you may, if you survey recent examples of Italian brutal death metal reviewed in this august publication, the Kronos name is not too thick in the ground, and that’s intentional. I’m a devout opponent of the style of brutal death pioneered by Hour of Penance and copied by so many of their Mediterranean peers and do my best to avoid reviewing death bands who play in the style simply because it’s a lose-lose situation; the band’s fans get angry and I have to listen to eight hours of blastbeats and shitty riffing before slapping a 2.0 on the album and gently depositing it in my circular file. However, I’m happy to report that Devangelic don’t quite play Italian-style brutal death. Not that it helps.
Devangelic boast that their latest “consists of 100% pure US Brutal Death Metal mixed with unrelenting guitar riffs, dark atmospheres, intense blasting and ultra-guttural vocals,” which is an apt piece of boilerplate death metal propaganda. Think Suffocation, or if you’re really a brutal death bloodhound, Disgorge or Gorgasm without the melody. Phlegethon sounds like any other non-slam album released between 1997 and 2007 with a mangled corpse on the cover. In lieu of materials suggesting otherwise, I can confidently report that Phlegethon was recorded and written in a wet ditch in Sardinia. This is not a complaint, merely an observation, seeing as it mimics the aesthetics of American wet ditch albums by Disgorge and similar filth-purveyors but with slightly better sound. The production may be intentional, but that doesn’t make me like it.
You see, what made ditch-death appealing in the first place was that it was exciting. In the mid-to-late ’90s death metal’s underground was maturing and all of the aspects of modern brutal death were being set in place. Guttural vocals, overpowering low-end rumbles and ludicrously offensive gore imagery were the Ulcerate-isms of their day, and any metalhead worth their baggy shorts was keen to pry the newest neighbor-infuriating brutality available out of its brittle jewel case and into their Dodge Colt (these were the days before the Neon was ubiquitous second-hand (I assume; I was a toddler.)) Phlegethon has everything it needs to succeed in 1997, but twenty years later and there is enough of this music out there in this style that an album can’t stand on its aesthetic alone.
For an album that’s supposed to be about Dante’s Inferno, there’s precious little to be had in terms of the variety of punishment. I’ve probably heard and forgotten each of these riffs twice before, and I’d not be terribly surprised if you told me that the first and second halves of this album are identical. I’m at a loss to even describe the material here since the band’s own prose covers it entirely — though I take issue with the implication that this album is “atmospheric.” I don’t think ditches really have much of an ambiance.
There’s nothing terrible about Phlegethon, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. There’s nothing very good about it either, and furthermore, there is very little “about” it in the first place. It is an utterly unremarkable entry into a style that originated at its own logical extreme. By occasionally crossing the thin border into slam (and, hopefully, self-awareness) or Incantation-worship, this album could have attitude — or at least attributes. Instead, it constrains itself to this very circumscribed and ultimately very boring style of brutal death that’s only a step away from the usual Italian death metal that I try to avoid1.