You would think after ten years of existence and an ever increasing stable of writers seeking out the new and the good, that there wouldn’t be any notable metal bands left who haven’t been reviewed on AMG. I suppose it’s a testament to the sheer volume of the metalverse that this isn’t true. I was shocked when I realized that Akerblogger‘s review of Thou‘s 2018 release Magus was our first time covering one of the most prolific American metal bands of the last 15 years. Equally great was my disbelief when I found that no writer before me had squatter’s rights to Universal Death Church, the first full-length in five years by Chicago’s blackened sludge veterans Lord Mantis. Their loss is my gain, as well as yours, faithful reader, because Universal Death Church is very good.
It’s been three years since the Nice Teeth Whore EP fielded a very different Lord Mantis lineup, with guitarist Andrew Markuszewski as the lone carryover. Original vocalist Charlie Fell is back in the saddle—often behind distortion effects—after Dylan O’Toole of Indian1 provided his nearly identical acid-bit screech for NTW, but the most significant difference is the absence of drummer Bill Bumgardner, whose passing in 2016 was a catalyst for the reuniting of the band’s Death Mask era lineup. I’m happy to say his replacement Bryce Butler takes up the mantle admirably, as he switches between the blackened blasts and almost industrial hammering the band has built its sound on over the last decade. The former is on full display for opener “Santa Muerte,” a two and a half minute black metal brush fire punctuated by Fell’s ominous and timely spitting of the words “us..against us…against us…against you…against you.”
To these ears, Universal Death Church is a bit less sludgy than past Lord Mantis releases, with more separation between instruments in the mix, but this slight cleaning of the distortion doesn’t lessen the impact of the material. This is evident across the back half of the album, which boasts stellar songwriting better served by clarity. I’m not always a fan of acoustic numbers on otherwise massively heavy albums, but “Low Entropy Narcosis” puts a psychedelic spin rather than a pretty one on the album interlude, and it helps calibrate the listener to perceive the intricacies of the final tracks. The last two songs especially are a tour de force of the disparate elements that make up the Lord Mantis sound. On “Fleshworld,” Fell—with what sounds like a little help from O’Toole—turns in his most varied and affecting performance above a full black metal assault, until the song transforms in stages to such a cavemanly riff and drum beat that shirts practically tear themselves off. Closer “Hole” features a layered saxophone part that acts as a tonal backbone throughout the song’s slow, entrancing progressions. It’s an incredible one-two punch to end the album.
In relative terms, the front half of Universal Death Church is a bit weaker than the back. “Santa Muerte” is an ideal opener, but there’s a nearly 10 minute stretch between “God’s Animal” and “Qliphotic Alpha” that’s…fine. The former is a nice display for Butler’s muscular drumming, but from a songwriting standpoint it doesn’t rise to the same level as the later material. This remains true through the first half of “Qliphotic Alpha” before a false ending at the midpoint ushers in a far more dynamic and memorable groove and a progression of subtle melodies that add rich texture.
On the whole, Universal Death Church is another beast of an album by Chicago’s nastiest band. Longtime fans may find it a bit lacking in the crud and filth they’ve grown accustomed to, but the music is sinewy and robust as ever and the vocals of Fell and O’Toole remain the most corrosive in the game. The songwriting is slightly uneven, but more often than not it slays with extreme prejudice. After more than a decade, multiple lineup changes and a tragic loss, Lord Mantis remains cream of the blackened sludge crop.