There are records—Unleash the Archers’ Apex, for example—that represent massive jumps in quality from their relative predecessors. Other records constitute evolutionary improvement rather than revolutionary ones. Ichor’s debut record, Benthic Horizon, was plagued by an awful production, tepid songwriting and pacing issues. 2014’s Depths was an incremental advancement, yet still bromidic. Fast forward four years and German death-metallers Ichor meet us face to face once more with Hadal Ascending. Will Ichor finally prove to be the marine leviathan they’ve always aspired towards, or will Hadal Ascending expose them as just another gutless Magikarp?
For starters, Hadal Ascending differs from Depths in terms of overall sound. Where Depths was stereotypical modern death metal through and through, Hadal Ascending takes a gentler, vaster approach. Songs haven’t grown in length, but rather expanded in scope. Hadal Ascending shares more in common with Irreversible Mechanism’s Immersion than anything else when considering the sonic shift upon which Ichor here embarked. Atmospheric flourishes are in play, as are some black metal influences and synthesized effects. The waters have calmed somewhat, with the brutality of Depths being used as an accent within, rather than the basis of, Hadal Ascending.
All adjustments, thankfully, elevate Ichor’s music rather than drown it further into anonymity. I’m especially fond of the chanting throat singing in “Paradise or Perdition,” the keyboard flourishes in the final third of “In Ecstasy” and the vocoder effects in closer “Conquering the Stars.” Many songs feature blackened trem-picking to give proceedings some pizzazz, something sorely missing from Depths. Eric (vocals) does a great job injecting some blackened rasps into his roaring death growls. Norb (bass), Dirk (drums), Daniel and Jo (guitars and…uhh…guitars) are likewise commendable for their progress in overall songcraft. While every song on Hadal Ascending is mid-paced, slower sections (“A Glowing in the Dark”) and blistering partitions (“In Ecstasy”) populate the record such that everything isn’t monotonous, nor does it seem disjointed. Ichor still adhere to genre standbys a little too often (especially on “Black Incantation” or “The March”). Nevertheless, enough new elements have been introduced that I’m now interested in following Ichor as they develop even further.
Improvements notwithstanding, Hadal Ascending is blighted by an overwrought story. I had no idea until now, but Ichor’s entire discography was meant to play out a grand narrative about “a devastated and hate-filled deep-sea world full of creatures and mystical beings” being explored by brave human warriors. Hadal Ascending continues the story by documenting a fierce battle waged between these humans and the denizens of the deep blue, only to have the human battalion wiped out and feasted upon by a newly awakened demon, “Zaan,” who opens a portal “into the empire of stars and planets.” Wait, what?
Portions of that crazy amalgam fail to render on Hadal Ascending, illustrating the overreaching scope and underwhelming cohesion of the adventure. Individual songs deliver their parts well enough, but taken as a whole there are plot points of Hadal Ascending that do not seem adequately represented. Knowing there was content that couldn’t be expressed in the record properly is comparable to watching an ill-adapted screenplay of a favorite fantasy novel. So much gets lost in translation that it sours the experience by a noticeable degree.
Ichor are clearly dedicated to writing a great death metal album, but the band isn’t there just yet. Hadal Ascending marks an evolutionary upgrade from Depths, slowly but surely individualizing Ichor in their chosen milieu. They haven’t completely broken their dependency on death metal tropes, but this was a good step forward. What hurts Hadal Ascending the most is the concept. It needs to be finessed, massaged and fleshed out with a more concrete plot and worthwhile characters. I no longer harbor any doubt that Ichor are capable of making big waves in the expansive oceans of modern death metal, but they have their work cut out for them.
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kb/s mp3
Label (Digital/CD): Unholy Conspiracy Deathwork | Label (Vinyl): WOOAAARGH Records
Releases Worldwide: December 7, 2018