When you get right down to it, the world fucking sucks. Even ignoring the current political situation in my home country and the environmental degradation occurring globally, what really gets me are the everyday frustrations. My printer stops working. My friends don’t text me back. My fucking car gets towed because it’s parked a few inches closer to the road than it’s supposed to be. Sometimes it feels like we’re all just stuck in a mad carnival of constant digital interruption and arbitrary regulation, to the point where we either drink ourselves to death from anxiety or say “fuck it all” and go live in a shack in the woods somewhere. But the truth is, maybe none of that matters — in the end, aren’t we all just shuffling bags of flesh that are probably going to be dead in a few decades anyway?
It’s fitting that German quartet Downfall of Gaia chose to set their fourth full-length Atrophy around a similar theme. “A record about the absurdity of life and of human existence,” the promo blurb reads. “An album about the constant dialog between life and death.” And indeed, this is music that seems terribly aware of the struggle to justify a will to live amidst an overwhelming sense of purposelessness. Expect bone-rattling drumming, plaintive clean picking, cascading melodies, and gripping ‘soaring-over-treetops’ riffs that could easily accompany time-lapse footage of a forest being destroyed by acid rain. If there’s any hope to be found on Atrophy, it’s in the vague resolve of the distant bellowing rasps, or the thin veneer of triumph these sorrowful progressions possess – as if seeing the world through tear-soaked eyes adds a gleam that makes everything just a little more bearable.
Two years ago I was hung up on comparing this band to Altar of Plagues, but on Atrophy, Downfall seem to have largely stepped outside that shadow. Nearly all traces of crust or sludge have been scraped away, distilling their sound into what’s always been their strongest element anyway. This is post-black metal in the best sense of the term – an earthier and more compositionally adventurous Harakiri for the Sky, or a Deafheaven that’s grown up, abandoned its pink outer-garments, and realized life isn’t just sunscreen and bermuda shorts after all. Check the gut-wrenching main riff of “Atrophy,” which effectively conveys a sense of vastness by quickly striking one note and then sustaining another for several dramatic seconds. Likewise, opener “Brood” follows the dense ambiance of its first minute with a rushing torrent of guitars and fuzzy Fell Voices-style leads, crying out like a wolf howling for its lost pack. “Woe” follows with surging post-metal chords and peppy drumbeats, climaxing with a darting melody that sounds like that wolf’s last-ditch attempt to ascend a mountain in search of shelter, before it dies of starvation.
Terrifically evocative atmosphere aside, even the attributes of Atrophy I originally regarded as flaws seemed less of an issue with repeat listens. The production is noticeably foggier than past works but remains unmuffled, and is a good fit for the record’s wispy, boundless feel. Instrumental closer “Petrichor” initially seemed like a “run-out-of-steam” conclusion, before I realized the blustery riffs and dusty piano finish were more like a final exasperated sigh, and one of the few respites in an emotionally taxing 40 minutes. With six tracks and a runtime 20 minutes shorter than its predecessor, I also first thought of Atrophy as less ambitious, but that was wrong as well: this feels more effortless and less calculated in its construction, a work trimmed of fat and stylistically refined.
Bolstered by lively drumming that alternately shambles, crashes, and blasts, there’s hardly a moment on here that isn’t captivating. Perhaps the most striking example comes at 1:47 in album centerpiece “Ephemerol,” when a riff emerges that could be the soundtrack to holding a loved one in your arms as they freeze to death, while you’re too weak to even mutter a final goodbye. But the word ‘depressing’ isn’t quite accurate: this is music about retaining one’s last bit of life in the midst of resignation, acutely aware that sometimes all we can do is persist when everything withers around us. While far from cheerful, the engrossing mood and relentlessly inspired ideas – along with the sheer sense of power Downfall convey — simply make Atrophy too good to pass up.
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: v0 mp3
Label: Metal Blade Records
Websites: downfallofgaia.com | facebook.com/downfall of gaia | downfallofgaia.bandcamp.com
Releases Worldwide: November 11th, 2016