When I was a boy, busy putting my beleaguered vertebrae through a heavy metal crash course in brain surgery, there were a few records that would stay with me forever. On the death metal spectrum, my friends and I loved nothing more than realigning the atoms of our necks to the dulcet tones of Consuming Impulse or Realm of Chaos. Malevolent Creation‘s first two albums, The Ten Commandments and Retribution, were also prime influences in our quest for spinal reconfiguration. I even rather enjoy the much-maligned Stillborn, despite its horrendous production. But, of course, this isn’t a retrospective of death metal’s classic era, it’s a review of Malevolent Creation‘s newest offering and the first since the untimely passing of frontman Brett Hoffmann. Unless you’re one of those fuckers who scrolls to the bottom of the page to check the score before reading, allow me to spoil the surprise. The 13th Beast is fine. Not fine like the veritable Venus, but agonizingly adequate.
In analyzing this album, it’s absolutely necessary we take a brief glance back at the band’s prime. It’s particularly relevant as The 13th Beast features not just a new singer, but an entirely renewed line-up. Phil Fasciana remains the heart of Malevolent Creation, but the strain of balancing their sometimes controversial legacy is beginning to show, now more than ever. Once upon a time, these staples of the Floridian scene weaponized their violence with just enough thrash influence to carve a riff-worn swathe through metal fans near and far. The quality that once informed favorites such as “Remnants of Withered Decay,” “Eve of the Apocalypse” and “Slaughter of Innocence” is long gone. But some of the patterns still prevail, like bleached bones in the desert that still imply a once impressive predator.
The hallmarks of Fasciana’s approach to riff-craft are still prevalent. “Canvas of Flesh” nails the signature sound with trem-picked sequences and the same churning verses that have always driven Malevolent Creation‘s best material. The 13th Beast most certainly puts emphasis on the riff, which is never a bad tactic. “Born of Pain” opts for a militaristic advance with just a smattering of melody. It’s a potent track that represents the peak of the album’s creativity, but its prowess also shines a light on the record’s rather tumescent bloat problem. With some more scrupulous editing, The 13th Beast could have been sharper by degrees. As it is, the throwaway tracks have an unfortunate tendency to swarm the more succulent morels, like hipsters on soy.
Of the new blood, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Lee Wollenschlaeger is most obvious. His vocal approach, perhaps purposefully, borrows a very similar cadence from Hoffmann, albeit with a deeper register and a less unique character. His inclusion behind the mic is seamless enough and he sounds strong growling over nasty cuts like “Mandatory Butchery” and “Decimated.” Unfortunately, his performance can’t compensate for the rigid repetition that eventually sets in. A shame, as The 13th Beast has the potential to be the band’s best record since Warkult. At least bassist Josh Gibbs fares well inside the mix. His strings underpin the old-school rhythms with plenty of weight amidst Philip Cancilla’s capable blasting.
Thirteen albums in and Malevolent Creation have returned, mind-locked into their original formula. But, although some of the songs certainly talk the talk, ultimately, they just don’t go the distance. The 13th Beast is primed with a sordid sinew that commits the album’s nocturnal work well enough, but even the most fervent of death metal fans will have to admit that, come the dawn, those ligaments turn to gossamer disappointingly fast. The truth is, despite early odds, most of the band’s discography is decidedly average and this is no exception. Take the album to the gym and it will serve well as fuel for the iron. Just don’t be surprised when further inspection proves why, despite ravenous beginnings, Malevolent Creation‘s entire existence just doesn’t exist enough.