Ontborg – Following the Steps of Damnation Review

One of my favorite encounters as a reviewer surrounds promo which subverts my every expectation of sound and style. This phenomenon can take many forms. Most commonly, the description provided in promo materials misdirects and obfuscates, betraying the listener’s trust from the onset. Occasionally, artwork and band logos suggest one style while the content itself treads on completely unrelated territory. Rare, however, is that promo which superficially matches the description, artwork, and visuals while still blindsiding me in its approach. Italian melodic death metal quartet Ontborg’s sophomore record, Following the Steps of Damnation, represents one such rare record.

Italian they may be, but Ontborg play melodic death metal of the sadboi persuasion starring the classic Swedish tones of an HM-2 pedal. This old-school Amorphis meets Omnium Gatherum by way of Carnation and Helslave combination threw me for a big loop when I first spun it. Few and far between are my encounters with slow and somber melodeath with such a gritty, serrated sound, and yet Ontborg make it work seamlessly. Songwriting recalls the tender and minimalist approach I expect from bands like Be’lakor, but with less nuanced compositions and raspier vox. Most of the album ambles with a mid-paced stomp to motivate the listener’s neck and spine. Due to that habitual tempo, Following the Steps of Damnation flows like a gentle stream, never stagnant but also unlikely to froth. It’s a curious phenomenon which further undermined my expectations for the material, but somehow, Ontborg’s subtle charm started to work its magic in time.

A majority portion of that magic comes from either Lukas Flarer’s or Florian Reiner’s (whichever of those two plays lead guitar) emotive leads. One of my favorite aesthetics in metal is a harmonized lead, and from the massive opener “Steps of Damnation” onward, harmonies abound and thoroughly light my spinal cord aflame. Riffs, as a compromise, take the back seat more often than not. Thankfully, Ontborg infuse a sufficient quantity of high-dollar licks, like those motivating “Purgatory” and “Underneath,” to create a stable foundation for those seductive melodies. On a deeper level, there’s a surprising wealth of variety on Following the Steps of Damnation. From the vaguely folky “Old Mother Frost” to the especially doom-laden “The Tower” and the charred “I Am the Night,” Ontborg embedded a covert kaleidoscope of tones and textures across ten consistently enjoyable songs. This unassuming versatility makes this journey more and more interesting to undertake on a repeated basis than it would seem at first blush.

As interesting as Following the Steps of Damnation can be, audiences may find unearthing its most fascinating qualities an arduous task. Fifty-five minutes of mid-paced melodic death metal is a tough investment, and in spite of the deceivingly charming songwriting involved, Following the Steps of Damnation is taxing at first. “To the North” doesn’t help ease that burden, as the languid pacing and nine-minute runtime drag the momentum down, though its leads are still quite evocative. Furthermore, undeniable quality embedded in this writing notwithstanding, I find that there is a monotony present. Without a furious attack or even a truly funereal dirge placed here and there, Following the Steps of Damnation congeals into a smooth, featureless topography, wanting of tangible peaks and valleys at the surface level to stimulate the mind or stir the flesh.

Ontborg’s sophomore effort is a curious record. Capable of bridging the gap between gritty HM-2 tones and mournful songwriting, Following the Steps of Damnation is excellent as a proof of concept for an unlikely pairing. For the most part, the Italian troupe found success by writing consistently good, if not game-changing, material. A vague sense of monotony in pacing and some bloat conspire against the listener, while excellent harmonized leads and subtly varied themes spur the listener to stick it out regardless. Before you know it, the whole album has passed, but the question remains: do you spin it again? I’m not yet convinced most would answer in the affirmative, but I am convinced that those same people might miss out on something deeper. The choice is yours.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 5 | Format Reviewed: 256 kbps mp3
Label: Black Lion Records
Websites: facebook.com/Ontborg | ontborg.bandcamp.com
Releases Worldwide: February 24th, 2023

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