I’m an extreme guy. By this I don’t mean that I consider myself dangerous or an advocate of some horrendous 90’s marketing initiative, rather that I am a man of extremes – when I like something, I like it a lot; when I dislike something, I have almost no capacity to hide it. Having said that, I pride myself on giving anything and anyone a fair chance, and so it is with music. Lest I resort to using an entire genre as a de facto pejorative, I make sure that it’s an informed opinion that I weigh against an act. Thus, when I say I’m not a huge fan of deathcore, it’s an evaluated choice – not a trendy point of view. Often when people consider an album below par, we’re quick to deride it as awful, though realistically, it more than likely inhabits mediocrity’s favorite grey area than the genuinely offensive. Chicago’s No Zodiac are teetering on the brink of releasing their third album, Altars of Impurity, a record I have listened to excessively for the sake of a fair review. So, believe me when I tell you, there are no shades of grey here – it’s pretty fucking black and white.
It was on the back of Kronos‘ stellar review of the latest Fit For An Autopsy album – an unlikely release that I found myself adoring due to its obvious Gojira-gasm – that I happened upon this band. Hell, even the last Carnifex record didn’t entirely make me want to swallow my own ears, so I genuinely wondered if this was a genre I might yet parse… If, like me, you have never crossed paths with No Zodiac before, let me help you out. The band who, with the exception of drummer Erik Bartow, were entirely replaced in 2016, play a profoundly dull iteration of deathcore, one which puts emphasis on hardcore’s street level bravado whilst spoon-feeding us some of the most uninspired death metal inflection I’ve ever heard. Monotonous mid-paced riffs chug on for a small eternity with absolutely no discernible ability to recognize beginning from end. Apparently the kids are calling it “beatdown.” I call it a fucking chore.
The real devil in the detail here is the songwriting, or lack there of – rarely have I witnessed such a dearth of ideas. “Santisima Muerte” opens the record with some feedback until vocalist Rolo Hernandez’s growl bellows in. His voice is a reasonable approximation of Corpsegrinder’s effortless intimidation but without any of the innate enunciation – it’s also dripping in school-yard, tough guy swagger. Imagine the Cannibal Corpse frontman wearing a bandana and making gun signs with his fingers and you’re about halfway there. The track utilizes a very basic, but fundamentally propulsive riff until the breakdowns begin, which, when used properly can define a great song… Not when “breakdown” begins to apply to my sanity, perhaps even DNA. Even the aggression of album highlight “Hung by the Tongue,” inexplicably featuring Trevor Strnad, eventually descends into mindless lumbering. “Corroded Soul” and “Penance” both start out with some decent cyclical rhythms that at the very least got my head moving, but somewhere along the line I blinked and, before I knew it, was back in that purgatorial vault of anti-riffs, where lost souls miserably mill, begging to be fed a mouthful of ingenuity with a chaser of early Cryptopsy.
What makes matters worse is that, individually, the band probably aren’t all that bad. Although Hernandez’s vocals aren’t for me, he clearly has it in the tank, and guitarists Brent Gutierrez and Jeff Boozer, despite being unforgivable riff wastrels, occasionally dole out some respectable soloing over the sopo-riffs. That considered, it’s nigh unforgivable then that I had to persevere so, simply in an attempt to distinguish one song from another. Although I suspect album closer “Population Control,” featuring the pure poetry of “7 billion people, 7 billion too fucking many!” may stay with me for some time…
Altars of Impurity feels like an attempt to facilitate a schoolboy’s grasp on brutality, and a poor one at that, full of vacuous posturing and performed by a band who sound terminally bored of their own writing, which is inexcusable. It’s almost impossible to render something as definitively extreme as death metal dull, but No Zodiac managed it with aplomb by weaponizing homogeneity itself. They say if you gaze long enough into the abyss, sometimes deathcore looks back. Don’t fucking blink, or you deserve this.