Remember when you “cleaned out” your basement and swept a pile of concrete, paint chips, and earwig corpses into the corner? Malthusian broke into your house, snorted it, and recorded Across Deaths there while you were at work. This album will give you an asthma attack and reduce your children’s IQ by ten points. It hangs in the air between you and your speakers, and only continues playing if you walk into it. If it were an animal, it would be the mummified mouse under your washing machine. Across Deaths is not the moldering Victorian curio cabinet of Portal but the thick layer of dust on top of it, an unpleasant and irritating grit made primarily of your own crumbled skin.
But enough of this descriptive commentary — I have cred to establish.1 You see, I was into Malthusian before they were cool, man. Given that they probably haven’t crossed the line into coolness, you can join me, but you wouldn’t have the verified old-school cred of reviewing their 2013 demo and the 2015 EP, Below the Hengiform. You probably also don’t have the pleasure of reviewing this debut LP, but if you’re as hip as I am to the Irish black/death project’s trajectory, you wouldn’t have to get an advance copy to know that the band were going to go full-on caverncore. Grave Upheaval, Disma, Mitochondrion; these are the band’s new contemporaries, and Malthusian just about hold their own.
While Portal and Mitochondrion easily trump Malthusian in technicality, they’re not worlds apart in creativity. Across Deaths brings new and challenging material through constant rotation, its splintered rhythm and pinched, throat-collapsing shrieks bolstering a bevy of doomy death metal riffs. The band locks into riffs not too far removed from those of Below the Hengiform from time to time, but always bring them towards more inventive conclusions or through rougher and more dangerous surroundings. “Primal Attunement – The Gloom Epoch” brings creative drumming to the fore and accents its repetitive conclusion with a choking chorus of shrieks and swells of a dour cello.
Apart from this penultimate challenge, the album feels almost monolithic. The songs are distinct enough to not run together but have very little staying power. As strong as the riffs can be, they’re spaced out and rarely feel conclusive — each only a moving part of a larger whole. What could have been a dreary album with peaks of horror and unease doesn’t build up high enough to produce more than one peak. In action, Across Deaths is satisfying enough, but “Primal Attunement” is the only song that feels totally worth the time it takes. In the right mood, the album is a great example of this style of death metal, but it falls short of being great music.
And that’s a shame because Across Deaths really could have been the whole package. Listen past the jagged tones and you’ll realize that the album is mixed very well and each instrument comes across as a separate entity. The sound is lo-fi, but not lo-brow, and despite a shy bass sounds remarkably full. I would hesitate to call anything this dirty-sounding “clear,” but it’s a far cry from the intentionally murky and dense production of many other death metal albums that chase this aesthetic. It’s hard to say whether this is really an asset at times; a lot of the draw of a band like Portal or Impetuous Ritual comes from not understanding what is happening. Lesser bands in the style will use filthy production to cover a deficit of really bizarre ideas, and that deficit comes into play here. Perhaps a murkier version of Across Deaths would capture my attention more.
Caverncore, like many other uncatchy and extreme varieties of death metal, can seem like the pinnacle of music when you’re in the right mood and little more than an annoyance when you’re in the wrong one. A truly great album in the style (see Portal‘s Ion) will force you to its side, and Across Deaths doesn’t quite have that pull. Nevertheless, it reaffirms and expands upon Malthusian‘s vision and demonstrated that the band are real players in the scene and not afraid to present themselves without the comforting cloak of obfuscating production. Cloak owners, eat your hearts out.