I’ve noticed something weird about me and death metal over the years. No matter how much of it I listen to, it seems like there’s always at least one more big-name underground band that I’ve somehow never come across. Recently, that band came in the form of Dutch quintet Sinister. Formed in 1988, the group released acclaimed debut Cross the Styx in 1992, along with a slew of other albums throughout the 90s and early 2000s. After briefly breaking up in the mid-2000s and undergoing a few lineup shifts, vocalist Aad Kloosterwaard remains the sole founding member for thirteenth full-length Syncretism. Going in with zero expectations other than some online hoopla I’d seen about Sinister on metal forums, is Syncretism good enough to win over an ignorant listener like myself?
Yes and then some. For someone who worshiped at the altar of Morbid Angel and mid-period Behemoth when first getting into death metal a decade ago, Syncretism scratches an itch I didn’t even realize I still had. Imagine if Behemoth’s Demigod was performed by Malevolent Creation, with a bit of vocal influence from Aborted’s Sven de Caluwé. In one word, this album is monstrous.
Where to start? Kloosterwaard bellows with a demented, barely-decipherable roar that recalls both aforementioned de Caluwé and even Lord Worm’s legendary performance with early Cryptopsy. The guitars are beefier than Hulk Hogan eating a fistful of Big Macs, plowing through the mix with a hefty and violent buzz that serves as the perfect vehicle for the firestorm riffing. Toep Duin’s drumming, while slightly more subdued in the mix, blasts, and batters with a snappy, rattling snare and an explosive sense of force that will leave your eyes jiggling loose from their sockets. On Syncretism, Sinister’s primary intent seems to be conveying pure dominance in musical form: they play like they know exactly how powerful they sound and have nothing to prove to anyone.
The standout performance, however, goes to the guitars of Dennis Hartog and Bastiaan Brussaard. After its classical music intro, opener “Neurophobic” kicks in with the meanest death metal riff you’ve heard in months, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Follow-up “Convulsion of Christ” rides on long, sweaty tremolos that sound like Morbid Angel in their prime, while “Blood Soaked Domain” strikes with a thrashy main riff whose urgent potency possesses the same crushing force as aforementioned Demigod. Likewise, “Black Slithering Mass” lives up to its name with its sickly serpentine tremolos, the title track strikes some demented notes that invoke classic Cryptopsy, and closer “Confession Before Slaughter” even squeezes in some Dismember-style melodies before its ambient finish. Some of my favorite moments, however, lie in “Rite of the Blood Eagle,” which incorporates some of that inherently blasphemous riffing Vital Remains once specialized in, before moving into a section of haunting spoken word and devilish clean picking.
Throughout the record, Brussaard and Hartog never rely on “nothing” riffs or blasé chord progressions — nearly every moment of the album’s 48 minutes is packed with meaty guitars that exude a burning, hungry aggression. This vitriol is further conveyed in bouts of Deicide-esque double tracked vocals and prominent utterances of the song title in tracks like “Dominance by Acquisition,” which become perversely catchy with repeat listens. The production suits the music’s fiery energy well, though Syncretism can be a tad fatiguing at times even with its not-too-low DR 6. Furthering comparisons to mid-2000s Behemoth, there are also smatterings of horns and strings throughout the record, which often work but occasionally feel superfluous given how strong the base material is on its own.
But in terms of other complaints, I’m drawing a blank. For a guy who’s never heard of Sinister, I’m not just impressed, I’m getting ready to tear through their entire back catalog. It’s amazing that a band formed in 1988 — albeit with only one original member left — still possesses such raging energy and unabated aggression. This isn’t the sound of a veteran band still doing well despite their age, this is the sound of a veteran band entering the studio and firing on all cylinders, standing not just toe-to-toe with, but head and shoulders above the vast majority of death metal out there these days. The result is one of 2017’s first truly impressive albums and one I can’t recommend enough to any fan of the style.