Three years: a lifetime ago in the Earthly tumult that is metal’s muse. More than enough time for The Mother of Virtues to become a landmark work in extreme music, the most forward-thinking and brazen death metal album of the decade thus far. When I reviewed it, I mused that “A more difficult album [was] hard to come by.” What Passes for Survival is that and more. Pyrrhon‘s collective talents have expanded in every direction available. This album is more technical, more disturbing, and more lyrically biting than The Mother of Virtues or Growth Without End. It is peerless.
What Passes for Survival requires more than just a disc or a download to listen to; it absolutely necessitates a lyric sheet. I’ve been calling Doug Moore metal’s best lyricist since I first read the liner notes for The Mother of Virtues, but this album is a different beast; a poetic masterpiece of fractal depth and detail, where poverty, intolerance, and pollution dance in an ecology of corruption. If Moore hasn’t been reading Jason W. Moore1, I’m sure he’ll start soon. His bitter discontent paralleled only by his ability to express it, Moore runs rampant across this album, each stanza bursting with meaning, entangled in itself. These lyrics adhere to each other so tightly that even when pulled apart, songs have bits of each others’ themes stuck on. “Tennessee” takes on a very human topic, but when it sets the scene, Tennessee is “Where the land rolls rusted / and kudzu strangles the trees in green.” The album’s themes are not quite new for Pyrrhon, but one need not be an astrophysicist to know their inward bend is due to a mass at the center.
Yet What Passes for Survival does not constitute a mere poetry slam2. Moore’s dazzling laryngeal legerdemain harnesses text in service of sound, rather than the opposite, making the lyric sheet all the more necessary. Nonetheless, his vocals are only one quarter of Pyrrhon. The real man behind the curtain is guitarist Dylan DiLella, whose inimitable playing style and fervid disregard for conventional tonality make Pyrrhon so fiercely unique. His battered riffs defy simple description, but I can tell you that every one of them is worth hearing. Many a bent note and scraped string spawn his structures, bodies made all of elbows and fingers bent back.
“Tennessee” sees the guitar at its most accessible – if only because it’s slowed down – and serves as a stepping stone into this music. Bassist Erik Malave and new drummer Steve Schwegler kick off with a simple but unsettling groove, and the muddy pace of the following group improvisation allows for a uniquely comprehensible look into the band’s chemistry. Later on in the song, there’s an all-too short solo spot for DiLella, and his sideways acrobatics are turned front and center. Earlier, “The Invisible Hand Holds a Whip,” gives the band a chance to showcase their precision – a word that might as well be Schweigler’s middle name – as they execute odd riffs in odd time. The drumming is tight and busy, and the boisterous fills and rapid-fire snare work sound physically dangerous to play.
The best writing deserves the best production, so Pyrrhon got it. Recording, mixing, and mastering were all handled by Colin Marston and the result is stunning – he’s outdone himself. The sincerity of this production is such that the production itself becomes invisible. Any trace of process is unnoticeable; each note leaps into the air newborn. While The Mother of Virtues and Growth Without End were not ill-produced, they tended towards a sort of frequency clutter that made the sound’s dirtiness seem a bit too caked-on, and intentional rather than organic. What Passes for Survival absolutely hits the mark for balance, clarity and dynamic range. The last album I heard that sounded this rich was Ad Nauseam‘s Nihil Quam Vacuitas Ordinatum Est. Metal-Fi, you can stop your yearly search here; this is 2017s best-sounding album.
I’ve been writing about metal here at Angry Metal Guy for a little under four years now. Just after I began in 2013, I heard Altar of Plagues‘ Teethed Glory and Injury, an album that I consider to be for all practical purposes perfect. It’s the most recent on the very short list of albums that I have no complaints about. Albums that are uncompromising in their construction and unencumbered in their execution. What Passes for Survival finds itself in such company, and not by accident; it is the result of a confluence of uncanny talent and revolutionary vision, a piece of art that truly expands the canon from which it draws.