Longtime metalheads probably remember Mithras as that English duo who, despite being signed to Candlelight and releasing three acclaimed records in the mid-00s, were largely lost in the Behemoth– and Nile-led death metal resurgence of that decade. Which is a damn shame, because works like the Mesopotamian pummeling of 2002 debut Forever Advancing… Legions and the ‘Morbid Angel in Space!’ vibe of 2003’s Worlds Beyond the Veil deserved far wider recognition than they got. Mainman Leon Macey’s performances were particularly astounding – the dude’s drumming was up there with Peter Sandoval in terms of speed and ability, and his sweeping guitar theatrics were a sight to behold. Sadly, the group became largely inactive after 2007’s excellent Beyond the Shadows Lie Madness, releasing only the two-song Time Never Lasts EP in 2011 and baring their influence on last year’s Sarpanitum record, for which Macey contributed drumming and production duties. Now, Mithras is finally back with fourth full-length On Strange Loops – an album reportedly six years in the making and probably the last with longtime vocalist/bassist Rayner Coss, who left the group earlier this year. Strap in, sit tight, and set phasers to ‘fuck yeah’ as we explore what’s likely to be the best death metal record of 2016.
Opener “Why Do We Live?” sets the spacey mood with buildup drumming and rapidly oscillating notes, before first proper track “When the Stars Align” explodes with a swift drumroll and blunt chords that hit like a goddamn gamma ray burst. The first 45 seconds alone showcase everything I love about Mithras: choppy Azagthoth-inspired riffing, hyperspeed yet wholly human drumming, and those chaotic star-grappling leads which sound like a particle storm being accelerated to light speed. Coss sounds equally fierce behind the mic, delivering lines about ‘converging galaxies’ with a bellowed shout that recalls a godlier version of Vader’s Peter Wiwczarek.
As intertwining choral melodies take over in the song’s second half, Loops’ true goal becomes clear: this is a comeback record that is concerned with neither progressing the band’s sound nor recreating past glories. Instead, Loops shows Macey doubling down on everything that’s always made Mithras great, resulting in the band’s strongest work yet. Early highlight “The Statue on the Island” showcases the tightened songwriting at play, with a repetitive circular melody that morphs and reforms throughout the track’s runtime, layered with faint backing choirs to boot. Likewise, the production sounds at once sharper, more forceful, and more spacious than previous works, despite a lower DR than my ears originally expected. Most prominent is Macey’s stellar guitar-work, examples of which are aplenty. “Odyssey’s End” begins with nebulous clean picking before rumbling on a delicious plasmatic groove, while “Between Scylla and Charybdis” evokes the feeling of being sucked down a black hole with its violently shrill main riff.
The traits that really elevate Loops to the heavens, however, are the album’s concept and construction. As heard with “Howling of the Distant Spaces” and aforementioned “Scylla,” many tracks flow directly into one another, giving the record a cohesive urgency that’s offset by the band’s trademark celestial interludes. The end result is a 56 minute journey that can be both relentless and reflective, a work best consumed whole in its exploration of the concept of time and the purpose of human existence. After a set of monumental riffs and majestic leads in the closing title track, a series of fluttery notes mimic those in the album’s opener, before this overarching theme is looped together in the final verses with an echoed shout of ‘Why did we live?’ I’m tempted to answer that question with “because the new Mithras record wasn’t out yet.”
I’d be remiss in saying Loops is flawless – as Kronos described it so well at the AMG water cooler, Macey’s ‘blocky’ riffing style certainly doesn’t outshine his influences. But instead of out-riffing the innovators, Macey operates by doing the absolute best he can with his talents, fusing years of song-tweaking with raw improvisation to craft 12 tracks of the most warped and transcendent death metal 2016 has yet produced. Curious listeners and longtime fans are sure to love Loops, as is anyone with a Morbid Angel sweet tooth and a vinyl copy of Formulas Fatal to the Flesh. And for those who’ve been sleeping on the band up to now, consider this your fucking wake up call.