Syntactic ambiguity is a constant companion in this line of work. Much as I feel it is my duty to parse the imparseable and reconstruct meaning where once there was none, every so often even the best wordsmiths find themselves stymied as I am now. For some reason I never asked this question of the Sigh album, but what exactly does “Graveward(s)” mean? I suppose with the Sigh album I assumed that it was a ward placed on a grave, but here it seems to be prepositional, as in “towards the grave.” Gravewards offer me no answer; instead, they offer death metal.
Now if there’s one thing I love more than needless pedantry, it’s death metal, and since this band knocked off the first without playing so much as a note, I’m particularly well-disposed towards Ruinous Ensoulment. But Gravewards hardly need the boost. The Greek1 trio’s winding riffs and gritty, old-school attitude makes Ruinous Ensoulment an engaging debut and earns them a respectable spot among this year’s bevy of solid underground death metal releases. With cuts like “Crypt Spawned Psychosis” and “Abyssal Soul Devourment” spanning a bevy of classic influences, the album takes its death metal seriously. Across its forty-three minutes, the band shows off considerable chops, nailing their aesthetic and rarely making obvious missteps.
Ruinous Ensoulment seem to have all the right cards, but as the album progresses, it becomes clear that they’re still learning to play the game. The strategy becomes clear with “Souls Twisted Beyond Recognition,” an early ’90s take on brutality with heavy reference to Death but reliant on twisting and often very long strings of eight notes to add interest and technicality. This brings a whiff of Demilich to the proceedings, but the band leans on this mixture a bit too heavily. Play “Souls Twisted Beyond Recognition” and “Thresholds of Lunacy” back to back and you’ll catch it — most of the riffing in these songs are interchangeable. The individual songs often lack clearly differentiated motifs, and Gravewards compound this problem by stretching nearly all of them out for a minute or two longer than the material justifies. The album ends with a fade-out that’s a full minute long, and several songs (“Sworn in Denial – Omega Syndrome” and “Devoid of Life” for instance) simply continue riffing past natural stopping points.
It doesn’t help that the vocal performance here fails to break into the second dimension. While vocalist/guitarist Nikos has one nasty bellow, that’s all he has; a more varied approach would make up for his often too similar riffs. Sure, the consistent roar works if you’re Phrenelith or Cruciamentum, but one has to keep in mind that those performances are backing up the best riffs and most satisfying songwriting in the game. Ruinous Ensoulment isn’t quite there, but Gravewards have all the pieces in place; a solid grasp of old-school sound, technically proficient but never flashy performances, and a fitting production job. Sadly, writing great songs and piecing them together into a satisfying album is the hardest part of this whole enterprise — but if Gravewards can figure that out for the next album, I’ll be searching much harder to find aspects of it to complain about.
Ruinous Ensoulment is a flawed record, but its heart is in the right place. Gravewards play proper death metal and do it with style, and though the band doesn’t quite know their way around a song, their take on the old school sound should be more than capable of producing some great ones in the future. These rambling riffs and destructive growls make for a powerful combination. While I can’t say that I recommend this record too highly, I’m nevertheless excited to see what the future holds for the band as they march toward their hopefully distant tomb.