If forced to pin a “Dark Souls metal” tag on a band, Bell Witch, not Soulmass, comes to mind. Bleak and suffocating, funeral doom always smelled like the proper representation of a nightmarish world bent under centuries of decay and despair. Soulmass‘ 2014 debut Despairing Fates approximated its subject matter’s grind-you-to-sand difficulty more closely than its forlorn atmosphere. Their tempestuous death metal crushed as many souls as advertised, but five years later, that flame is extinguished. The Weakness of Virtue looms instead, spreading doom and death in the jolly cooperation that its subject matter so desperately craves.
“To Paint a New World” opens where Fates‘ finale “Throne of Want” closed, attempting the Dark Soulsean feat of offering long-form progressive death metal worth listening to. But while “Throne” felt like Soulmass groping through the boss fight, probing for weaknesses, the 10 minutes of “New World” displays the band’s experience and depth. Strings and a bass-drum combination equal parts halting and harrowing ease in calmly, setting up the sudden arrival of Soulmass‘ world-devouring presence. Bryan Edwards still mans the mic superbly, but former one-man band Brett Windnagle (Lascaille’s Shroud) summoned aid in the form of bassist Aaron Sluss (Graveview) and skinman Steven Scudero. The difference is immediately apparent, as every aspect of the metal—writing, arrangement, performances, hell, even the production—leveled up en masse. Doom influences and progressive intent pressure the classic deathcraft into multi-faceted pacing and presentation. On “New World,” the main direction defies Fates‘ palpable immediacy by trying for purchase multiple times before finally spilling into violence. Even then, the riffing is more restrained, a mature tack reminiscent of Horrified‘s recent shift from Swedeath apes to progressive black/death starlets. Fortunately, Soulmass‘ efforts reach for the very same ceiling.
The doom (for once!) impresses instead of bores, but for those that kept the faith, “Blacksmith’s Wisdom,” “Praise the Sun,” and “Spear and Hammer” fire crackling spears of lightning. This unrelenting Bolt Thrower grind elevates “Praise the Sun” to godhood; “Blacksmith’s Wisdom” and “Spear and Hammer” fall just behind. The former’s length acts at odds with its simplicity, while the latter’s midsection stops to plot where “Praise the Sun” charges right through the fog gate. These flaws don’t invalidate these tracks—they’ll still pummel you into oblivion, knave—yet I prefer Soulmass club me sans subterfuge. “Remember My Name” makes you wait for its controlled annihilation, but unlike “To Paint a New World,” I wish I didn’t have to. The bulk of Weakness masterfully weaves elements of Nailed to Obscurity disso-death/doom through the entirety of its cavernous abyss; Soulmass could let loose the hounds in shorter bursts. And while only a minor sticking point, the 68-minute spin could use some trimming. Penultimate “The First Sin” feels like a perfect finale, its Deathly embrace boiling every point of intelligence, strength, and dexterity that Weakness has into a gripping climax. Cutting or reworking elements of 14-minute closer “Embrace of the Gathering Darkness” might lose the humanity in Mercedes Victoria’s vocal entry, but it would benefit the track-listing.
The production deserves special mention, as it makes so much of the album’s success possible and pushes it into greatness. The influence of booth-superstar Damien Herring (Horrendous) cannot be understated. He brings the same touch that allowed Horrified‘s recent ascent and makes Horrendous sound so amazing. The guitars move from crunching death to soul-swallowing doom to trickles of black and stoner with impossible fluidity, giving Soulmass carte blanche to do whatever the hell they want. Wonderful spacing encourages Sluss’ bass to weave in and out like progressive death of olde, while Scudero’s beats have that satisfying pop that so much of modern metal embiggens into eardrum-ending static. Victoria’s soft performance could use some more weight behind it, but aside from that, Herring’s work is beyond reproach.
Like the game they revere, years of quiet led me to fear Soulmass had faded from this world for good. They instead return not only revitalized but reimagined. The deepening of their sound ensures Soulmass a place in the gorging death/doom thralls of recent years and provides a platform for their burgeoning abilities and captivating intensity to grow. The Weakness of Virtue signals a new day for Soulmass, a glorious dawn that I hope lasts an age. Praise the sun.