Horrendous – Ontological Mysterium Review

Between twenty-twelve and twenty-eighteen, Philadelphia’s Horrendous morphed from a straightforward old school death unit into a sophisticated and elite progressive death metal force, boasting a trio of gripping LPs on the back of a solid debut that hinted at Horrendous’ potential without fully preparing listeners for their stunning evolution. Staying true to their old school values and gnarled death metal core, Horrendous continued to up their game on a progressive, technical and compositional level, while writing digestible and memorable tunes. 2018’s Idol was another strong and engaging continuation of the stirring groundwork laid by Anareta, without surpassing the feats of that particular opus. After a five-year recording gap to test the patience of their swollen fanbase, where do Horrendous go from here?

No longer the underdog, Horrendous’ profile in death metal and progressive circles has skyrocketed. Yet I am glad Horrendous took their time returning to the studio. Smashing out three back-to-back bangers over a four-year cycle may have depleted their creative juices to a certain degree. Not to suggest their return on fifth LP Ontological Mysterium has resulted in an overly dramatic shift from their knotty prog-death formula. Horrendous boast a distinctive sound that stretches beyond their influences. Wafting scents of classic Floridian death, later-era Death, the eccentric flair of Voivod, and the progressive, technical nuance of Atheist and Cynic shade a sound that Horrendous have made their own. Ontological Mysterium feels both fresh and familiar, and clocking in at a tight 37 minutes, for all its ambition, Ontological Mysterium is also a lean, keenly edited opus and the shortest album in the band’s career.

Perhaps their most overtly progressive album, there’s a playfulness and warmth to the material that makes for a fun and unpredictable listen. Fears the prog may eventually overwhelm and swallow the death are cast aside amidst the intricate progressive flourishes, as Horrendous largely maintain their grit and aggression. Amongst a collection of tightly written, memorable cuts, “Cult of Shaad’oah” offers a splendidly menacing mix of chunky grooves, ripping axework, and headbangable hooks. The adventurous title track welds serpentine melodicism, sharp turns, and hooky riffs onto a sturdy death base, while excellent closer “The Death Knell Ringeth” is a grinding, doom-lit slab of spite, searing heaviness, and stirring emotional resonance. Gorgeous guitar solos, bubbling basslines, and striking clean vocals on the dazzling, twisty prog-death of “Chrysopoeia (The Archeology of Dawn),” are deftly counterbalanced by aggressive shifts, OSDM charms, and anguished howls, screams and growls. Harsher vocals dominate the palette, however, Ontological Mysterium marks Horrendous’ most varied vocal work to date. Scattered clean singing, chants, and robotic vocalizations crop-up. Perhaps influenced by his work with The Silver, Matt Knox compliments the harsher work of Damian Herring with a varied performance. Most works, though the effects-laden vocal turns and psychedelic swarm on “Exeg(en)esis” is both an intriguing and divisive tune. It’s one of only a couple of songs that fall short of the album’s otherwise lofty standards.

Musically, Horrendous are impressive as ever, their intuitive chemistry and unified skills drive each impeccably crafted composition. Guitarists/vocalists Herring and Matt Knox push themselves to the limits, with a gripping showcase of technical skill, showmanship, groovy, stomping death riffs and progressive flair. The exemplary soloing and lead work is a particular standout. Alex Kulick’s bass work constantly demands attention and is a perfect foil to the stellar guitar work and watertight drumming of Jamie Knox. You know what to expect from Herring and his Subterranean Watchtower Studios in regard to the sonic wonders that have trademarked the Horrendous canon. Ontological Mysterium presents another masterclass of extreme metal production and dynamic mastering. If you are expecting ultimate filth in your death, such as the grimy tones of 2023’s Rotpit album, you might be disappointed, but otherwise, it’s an outstanding production job that’s a delight to listen to, while still packing a wallop.

Horrendous are not content to spin wheels and rehash past glories. Ontological Mysterium is unmistakably Horrendous in sound and vision, yet it bravely pushes boundaries and tinkers with the parameters of their formula, while remaining cohesive and memorable. It may take time to determine where this fits within the band’s increasingly formidable discography. It’s a step-up from Idol, though perhaps does not quite obtain the incredible heights of Anareta. Horrendous have knocked out another triumph of intelligent, sumptuous progressive death, cementing themselves as of one of the most important death metal bands of the past decade.

Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Season of Mist
Websites: horrendous.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/horrendousdeathmetal
Releases Worldwide: August 18th, 2023

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