There’s nothing wrong with modern death metal, and The Modern Age Slavery make no attempt to rebel against the status quo. Formed in 2007, this Italian quintet released debut Damned to Blindness in 2008 but didn’t catch my attention until follow-up Requiem for Us All received some surprisingly enthusiastic praise upon its release in 2013. While I didn’t share the same excitement as other critics, overall Requiem fit nicely alongside the Hour of Penances and Man Must Dies of the world as a sharp, loud, and fast half-hour of socially-conscious death metal. Four years later, Slavery have welcomed a new guitarist and drummer to their ranks, spent some time in the touring circuit, and returned with more tentacle-infused artwork for third full-length Stygian. Will this be the record that finally sends them to the top, or will these Italian stallions be forever left sweating it out in the underground?
First, to clarify their genre: I’ve seen a lot of sites label Slavery as deathcore, a tag which didn’t make sense to me with Requiem and which equally confounds me with Stygian. At heart this is contemporary death metal, complete with blasting drums, squeaky clean riffs, and a vocalist whose growl isn’t too far off Paolo Pieri of country-mates Hour of Penance. The group also add their own flair with a bit of chugging and symphonic elements, ultimately resulting in a sound that’s something like Job for a Cowboy meets Septicflesh. Songs like proper opener “The Reprisal Within” go even further by adding some blackened character, layering grand and sinister chords over storming blastbeats akin to Belphegor. Everything is then smooshed together in a dense and loud production that bashes all elements in your face with nary a thought given to the integrity of your eardrums.
On the whole Stygian is a decent piece of contemporary death. Amidst the sharp chords and bouncy chugs, the guitarists often work in some squealing trills and twisted downtuned melodies that add a bit of fun and groovy energy to the fray. Likewise vocalist Giovanni “Gio” Berserk offers some true personality in his growls, and even fosters hooks in the memorable refrains of tracks like “Miles Apart” and “The Theory of Shadows.” Those aren’t the only highlights: second-half standout “A Stygian Tide” sounds huge and cinematic with its whoo-ooh backing choirs and monolithic riffs, while aforementioned “Miles” features some interesting verses that mix piano and chugging before erupting into Behemothian guitars. Though it all the drums are pummeling, the solos are slick and syrupy, and Slavery even abide by the cardinal rule of editing by keeping their proceedings to a slim 32 minutes.
Yet sadly, it seems for everything Slavery do right they also do something equally wrong. The blaring production makes things sound powerful when one’s paying attention, but that’s difficult to do when the overbearing volume causes one to start tuning out after a minute or so. Even when listening intently, the amount of memorable moments feels oddly scarce, particularly in the second half. In fact, the most memorable idea here – the jumpy melodic riff of “Regression Through Unlearning” – is completely destroyed when the band repeats it over and over atop mumbled spoken word for nearly the entirety of the song’s three-and-a-half minute runtime. It’s also always a bad sign when a cover song is an album’s standout track, and in Slavery’s case their closing take on Pantera’s “Sandblasted Skin” makes the rest of Stygian sound like it was written and performed by Tickle Me Elmo.
There’s a place for Stygian in the current metal landscape, and overall it’s not a bad record. The symphonics don’t feel superfluous, there’s a few cool ideas, and the band barrel forward with an in-your-face aggression that’s enjoyable even if the actual music is sometimes lacking. This is one of those albums that I’m certain will draw comments like “the embedded track doesn’t sound too bad, think you were a bit harsh,” but ultimately the loud and sterile production, forgettable songwriting, and sagging second half leave me unable to mark this higher. Fans of groups like Job for a Cowboy or even the new Thy Art Is Murder may enjoy this more. For everyone else, Stygian is just not quite enough to satisfy the modern age metalhead.