The old school death metal scene received a shot in the arm over the past few years, as the once painfully stagnant and derivative set has found some innovators to freshen up the old school worship. Numerous quality acts have embraced the darker, cavernous roots of classic Incantation and Immolation, with added touches of murky brutality and powerful song-writing. Cutting edge old school aficionados like Horrendous, Venenum, Tribulation and the sadly defunct Morbus Chron have provided solid proof that there are ways forward for a style firmly rooted in death metal’s storied past. Californian upstarts Skeletal Remains is a solid exponent of old school death, worshiping early ’90s (mostly) American death like Christians cherish the Bible. I’ve enjoyed their previous albums without ever being blown away, so was eager to dive in and discover whether the band could raise the stakes. Third LP Devouring Mortality has old school scrawled all over it, from a song-writing perspective right down to the killer Dan Seagrave artwork. But do the boys deliver an album to lift them into the top tier of modern retro death acts?
Opening with the awesomely titled “Ripperology,” Skeletal Remains waste no time cutting to the goddamn chase, dishing out a burly, carefully paced beat-down. It’s a cool, no-frills, unmistakably old school sounding tune, featuring enough modern punch and polish to remind the listener that it is, in fact, 2018. Although Devouring Mortality has its share of dynamic compositions and variety, it’s very much old school death of the meat and potatoes variety and that’s certainly not a knock against the quality work the lads deliver here. The music is technical without being flashy, the wailing solos, thrashy rhythms and violent blasts are interspersed with flesh-hacking grooves and memorable riffs. Over the top of the band’s ravenous assault sit Chris Monroy’s Van Drunen-styled vocals, which are serviceable and impassioned, if a little one-dimensional.
Devouring Mortality is marked by a solid level of consistency and memorable songcraft. The songs generally operate to the band’s strengths and they rarely overstay their welcome due to the mostly compact song lengths and the fact Skeletal Remains jam pack tons of variety and tempo shifts into their compositions. It’s largely no-frills stuff with some rather nifty embellishments, such as the dazzling soloing closing out the ferocious bluster of the crushing “Grotesque Creation,” or the swinging grooves and murky atmosphere of the rifftastic “Torture Labyrinth.” In fact the lead work is a cut above most old school death bands. The solos often dart in unexpected directions and are rolled out with flair and precision. I guess the biggest complaint I can aim at Skeletal Remains is that despite their skills and solid modern recreation of a classic formula, they fail to offer anything particularly vital or innovative to the equation and the song-writing flirts with but ultimately falls short of the greatness that several songs and moments hint at.
However, there’s nothing remotely sloppy about the execution and musicianship on display throughout Devouring Mortality. The addition of drummer Johnny Valles has only served to tighten and reinforce the band’s instrumental prowess. Valles doesn’t try and get too flashy, but his robust, energetic performance and ridiculously tight double bass work features a winning mix of creative flair and rhythmic diversity; providing a sturdy platform for guitarists Adrian Obregon and Chris Monroy to peel off riff after chunky riff, dashing leads, and punchy melodic counterpoints to compliment the duo’s passion for their crusty old school craft. Devouring Mortality comes equipped with a burly production job that nicely balances clarity and heft, retro values with modern sensibilities, and a strong mix from none other than Dan Swanö. The master could stand to be more dynamic but overall the production hits the mark more often than not.
Influences ranging from Morbid Angel to older Gorguts and Pestilence clearly frame the band’s sound, but Skeletal Remains have done a very good job of chopping up these influences and sculpting a sound that while certainly far from original, mostly escapes sounding overly derivative. Skeletal Remains aren’t here to hammer new life into the modern death metal scene. Their agenda remains stubbornly focused on pummeling the shit out of the listener amid waves of nostalgia and killer riffage. Here they sound a little more refined and accomplished than on previous offerings, resulting in a highly enjoyable old school death metal experience with its heart in the right place.