Time and time again have I berated my students with the need to keep their prose as idiosyncratic as possible, whilst still conforming to the syntactic standards that make a writer’s babble legible. But the fact is, it’s no easy feat to echo an original voice through an already well-defined and heavily arbitrated medium – a challenge I myself likely fail once a week on this very site. It’s probably more difficult still to appropriate a little agency within a genre of music so innovated that its standards have transcended instruction, defined instead by institution; after all, this is how we distinguish genres. Hailing from Austin, Texas, Morgengrau are another act to tow the classic death metal line, and while they don’t attempt to break boundaries per se, they do affect a few refreshing accents seemingly lost to the annals of death metal history, and second album, Blood Oracle, is all the more coherent for them.
Now, prior to review, I had never heard of the four-piece, named for their vocalist and guitarist, Erika Morgengrau. The band plays a decidedly old-school death metal, which never wants for the occasional blackened edge amidst its memorable, yet ever-shifting, structure. Aspyx‘s riff-mongering meets the Finnish cabal’s propensity for inhospitable environs, but it’s the Scandinavian flavored death/thrash of Merciless‘ Unbound and, uniquely, my own fair England’s Sabbat, that comprise the most strident notes in this particular bouquet. Morgengrau’s vocals are certainly commanding enough in tone, but she accentuates her delivery with the distinctive rhythmic cadence of one Martin Walkyier and the innate sense of performance that it affords. Her snarling narrative is particularly prevalent on “Wolves of Thirteen,” one of the record’s finest, and arguably featuring the very best platter of Blood Oracle‘s ferocious feast of riffs.
Guitarists, Nick Norris and Morgengrau, prove why death metal is a guitarist’s medium, dolling out killer rhythms by the boat load… at least for the most part. The title track opener advances with volleys of burning tremolos and thick grooves, palpably occult in atmosphere, before abandoning the pacing for some tight thrashing. It’s easily the best song on the album with its air of mysticism and immediacy. Fortunately, its closest siblings don’t fare much worse. “Progression” balances a resolute mid-pace with jackhammer gallops that incrementally increase, while “Forced Exodus” weighs a razor sharp riff against a crushing breakdown, showcasing the record’s ability to organically transition instead of haphazardly changing course. “Poised at the Precipice of Doom” hardly requires a genius to parse its content, and sure enough, the track lurches forward with its namesake genre’s gait. Unfortunately, this is where Blood Oracle starts to stumble. The song eventually fractures and speeds up, but, ironically, becomes notably less interesting, which sadly instigates something of a theme for the rest of the album.
Portentous though the title may be, the record’s bold collection of riffs appears to peak then deplete, doubling down on the same patterns a little too hard. While none of the songs are bad, I just can’t remember much of the album’s second half, an effect only exacerbated by the disparity between the opening and closing songs, the latter of which makes the two-fold mistake of using a throw-away instrumental to introduce itself, before lazily leaning on a faceless mid-pace. Blood Oracle‘s production, however, is an entirely different matter. With a gaping master and complementary mix, the album takes many an engineering cue from the classics Morgengrau so fondly celebrate, if a little low on volume. The dry guitar tone and vocals pervade but never at the expense of Jacob Holmes’ bass, which undulates and swells throughout each song, proving yet again why a primordial low-end simply mustn’t go unattended in extreme metal.
Old school death metal is so ubiquitous now, it hardly warrants the retro implication, with most of the worst offenders all too strictly aligned with their most immediate influences. Morgengrau are no particular exception, but I would be remiss to pretend they aren’t doing their level best to splice such traditional fare with a little something of their own temperament – and the results have proved themselves potent, albeit somewhat inconsistent. Blood Oracle boasts plenty of killer moments, but each comes with a Gemini genus of inferior variation; but if the band can stay the course on a follow-up, then – to paraphrase a little-known arthouse masterpiece – Morgengrau have a friend in me.
DR: 12 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Unspeakable Axe Records
Websites: unspeakableaxerecords.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/morgengraudeathmetal
Releases Worldwide: June 22nd, 2018