Whatever happened to melodic death metal? No, I don’t mean power metal with harsh vocals, as the term’s modern connotation entails. I’m talking about classic, knuckle-dragging death metal riffage, paired with somber, melodic atmosphere; the sort explored by Edge of Sanity, Tales from the Thousand Lakes-era Amorphis, and others during the 90’s. It’s a specific concoction that fell out of popularity as the genre pushed ever onward down increasingly brutal and complex avenues. And yet, Rogga remembers. Maybe it’s just that he’s exhausted every other sound in the realm of death metal, but Rogga Johansson’s second release as a solo artist, Entrance to the Otherwhere, captures this aesthetic better than anything else in recent memory. It’s a novel sound in 2019, to be sure, and though flawed, its accessible, abbreviated nature makes it utterly addictive.
Entrance to the Otherwhere picks up right where Rogga Johansson’s 2017 debut Garpedans left off, in both its sound and in its lyrical hybrid of folklore and horror. The difference is an uptick in quality in every conceivable area. Otherwhere retains its predecessor’s blend of melancholic major scale melodies and mid-paced guitar drives, but this time around the compositions feel tighter and more dynamic. Rogga’s chunky, groove-minded riffs dance around hooky lead guitar licks in surprisingly graceful fashion, swapping regularly with each other so as to never feel repetitive. In its most melodic moments, the record can even resemble gothic rock more than death metal. Rogga Johansson’s ability to explore this sound without dulling its death metal edge is a testament to his songwriting skills, still sharp decades into his mind-blowingly prolific career.
While Entrance to the Otherwhere’s greatest strength lies in its concise, engaging songwriting, most tracks feature at least one hyper-memorable moment, although this particular selling point feels less applicable towards the record’s back-end. The three tracks following the excellent piano / ambient piece “Berget Vaknar” – which sounds like a lost composition from Angelo Badalamenti’s brilliant Twin Peaks score – find my interest beginning to wane. Despite being solid tracks in their own right (I particularly enjoy the title track, which smacks of modern Amorphis), they lack the captivating beauty / beast duality of the preceding material, making them feel comparatively one-note. I’ve never had a desire to skip any of these tracks, but it is inescapably disheartening to hear Entrance to the Otherwhere end on a relatively unambitious note.
Regardless of their capacity to engage, each track is anchored by Rogga Johansson’s taut rhythm guitar work – which occasionally recalls Bolt Thrower in its crushing, mid-paced simplicity – and guttural, yet lucid vocals. It’s rare to receive a death metal promo where I don’t yearn for a lyric sheet, but Entrance to the Otherwhere is just that, providing lyrical clarity which pairs nicely with Entrance to the Otherwhere’s melodic nature. Rogga’s longtime collaborator Brynjar Helgetun (Johansson & Speckmann, The Grotesquery, et cetera) was recruited on drums, and provides notable flair to even the record’s slowest moments. “Till Bergets Puls” is an excellent example of this; his kick patterns and subtle fills provide welcome bursts of energy to one of Otherwhere’s most rock-oriented songs. All of the performances are beautifully balanced by a great mix, and the blending of classic Swedeath tones with a vast array of oddball synth effect makes for a surprisingly compelling soundscape.
I realize this is a rather glowing review for the relatively reserved score I’m about to hand out, and this is because, aside from a weak back-half, Entrance to the Otherwhere provides me with very little to criticize. It is as simple as it is gripping, as catchy as it is brutal; it handily accomplishes everything it sets out to do, and I adore the resulting sound. At the same time, though, I feel like Rogga Johansson hasn’t quite explored the full potential that this sound could entail. Given the leap in songwriting over his prior solo effort, it isn’t difficult to imagine a third outing effortlessly tapping into that vein. With a bit more substance and a bolstered compositional consistency, Rogga Johansson could easily prove a highlight of Rogga Johansson’s career. Until that day, it is a highly recommendable one.
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Transcending Obscurity Official | Bandcamp
Websites: roggadeathmetal.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/roggaofficial
Releases Worldwide: July 19th, 2019