We all know how powerful music can be, but as I meander through another twist of this mortal coil, I find myself pondering its capacity to conjure times gone by. The same way memories are summoned by the senses, certain contortions of distortion take me right back. Heads for the Dead — a supergroup comprised of members of Wombbath, Henry Kane, and Revel in Flesh; amongst others — transport me to a time when I was willing to skin knuckles over my favorite bands; a time when death metal and beer were everything and I would arrogantly inform anyone, whether they were willing to listen or not. The band’s debut, Serpent’s Curse, is a project designed to combine the teeth of Swedish death metal with the terror of horror movie atmospherics. The chimerical result is monstrous and very much alive.
Heads for the Dead primarily deal in Swedeath, and we all know what this entails. But, if the last decade of interchangeable Entombed-core has proven anything, it’s that the beaten path can still bear a swift kicking but only if the songwriting is good enough. And it is. Serpent’s Curse is brought to life by virtue of vocalist Ralf Haube and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Pettersson. The double-headed entity wastes no time in bleeding out any warmth of melody and instead fills its veins with an icy ichor to chill the bones and suspend the sinew. Occasional blasts interspersed with sparingly used d-beats churn a pool of paranormal samples and guitar lines that conjure the pulp horror movies so lovingly represented in the cover art.
The album employs three particular speeds, each one as treacherous as the last. The title track opens the record in fine form with slithering tremolos and verses that oscillate between tight thrashing and a military advance. As a direct foil, “Deep Below” plows oceanic trenches of doom, mining the same depths as Swallow the Sun‘s impeccable debut The Morning Never Came. Both songs include a guest solo spot from Matt Moliti of Sentient Horror. His feature enhances the material with each note, exercising a firm grasp of the project’s combination of extremity and atmosphere. Spliced between the album’s duality of death and doom is a collection of brief but brutal fare; the strongest of which is “Death Calls.” At just over a minute in length, the songs fills its lungs with a blackened disease before spewing forth a tumult that swarms the ears. These fleeting furors are key to the album’s fluidity and serve as grammar, affording Serpent’s Curse a sonic syntax to bind the capricious tempos.
Jonny Pettersson deserves special credit for crafting such a musically complete album. But his real victory lies in the abstract guitar inflections that litter the negative space between chords. These uneasy echoes elevate the already impressive death metal, but also serve to compliment the often ecclesiastic tone of songs like “The Awakening” or the dirge-heavy “Of Wrath and Vengeance.” All of this, however, is crowned by Ralf Hauber’s vocal performance. His turn on Serpent’s Curse is nothing short of excellent and the very best of his career. His Tägtgren-esque fusion of deep gutturals and insidious shrieks prowls amongst the material, affecting a predator/prey relationship with the listener. “Gate Creeper,” possibly the album’s finest, is the perfect example of both Hauber’s pernicious performance and Pettersson’s enviable songwriting.
Those less fond of Swedeath may not swoon over some of the album’s more traditional tropes. The cover of Wolfbrigade‘s “In Darkness You Feel No Regrets” is also a much less effective closer than “Return to Fathomless Darkness,” but these complaints are subjective and mostly inconsequential. Heads for the Dead is a band swathed in class, brandishing their indelible choruses like a psychopath’s blade. With each spin, I was transported back to the apex of my love for the genre, thanks entirely to the album’s unison of exemplary songwriting and imposing performance. Serpent’s Curse stalks its victims with a verve for violence but not once does it take its evil eye from the task at hand: transmuting the macabre into a death metal compound that terrorizes yet entertains in equal measure. Abominable, formidable and infinitely listenable.
DR: 5 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Transcending Obscurity Records
Websites: headsforthedead.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/headsforthedead
Releases Worldwide: September 24th, 2018