Vacuous – Dreams of Dysphoria Review

More so than with any other metal subgenre, “death metal” seems to admit to the most variety in style. Some of the same adjectives (“grimy,” “vicious,” “brutal”) get thrown around to describe some quite different-sounding music. It’s why I can call myself a death metal fan, even though I don’t enjoy a lot of death metal. Even when the death metal I don’t like is ostensibly the same flavor as the death metal I do. What all this means is that you can read a band’s promo sheet and never feel entirely sure what they’re going to sound like. So it was with London, UK’s Vacuous, whose self-descriptions of “atmospheric death metal” paint many different pictures, and who deliver something that may or may not cohere with them. This is not a criticism; it’s merely a case in point. So what does this sound like, and is it any good?

Dreams of Dysphoria certainly has atmospheric moments—and those are the best bits, by the way—but it feels closest to a more sprawling disso-death if we had to pigeonhole. Melody is almost entirely absent, along with comprehensible vocals, traditional song structures, and reason. Max Southall’s drumming cements the record’s dissonant, free-form status, flickering in and out of time signatures fast and slow, with fluid fills and raucous roll-overs aplenty. (“Matriarchal Blood,” “Paranoia Rites”). It’s an undeniable highlight. With two guitarists and a bassist, there’s also no shortage of riffs. They alternately ascend and descend, and chords jar discordantly as all good disso-death chords should. Jabbing at your throat (“Body of Punishment”) or crawling menacingly through thick mud (“Stigmata Scourge”). Those aforementioned unintelligible vocals (Jo Chen) don’t stick to one style either—except the horrible1 one. Sometimes the lowest of gutturals; sometimes a blackened shriek, a snarl, or a near-shout. Always br00tal. All these elements make for a pretty solid, incredibly unfriendly death metal record with much to commend it.

As I’ve intimated, Dreams of Dysphoria is generally strongest when Vacuous lean into dark atmospheres. They do so without pulling up from the mire of heaviness, which makes these moments satisfyingly evil-sounding. Nowhere else is this better exemplified than on the opening track, “Devotion.” Giving off strong Worm vibes with its eerie echoed guitar and shapeshifting, snakelike rhythms, its final section is defined by a gorgeously malevolent melody, undulating over a swaying beat. There could hardly be a better way to start the album. Small nods to this ominous opener arise later—in “Matriarchal Blood”‘s mournful late refrain; the Ulcerate-like murky chords and delicate, scattered percussion of “Paranoia Rites;” and the unsettling acoustic plucking of “Lucid (Interlude).” But it’s not until the final, eponymous song that we get a true callback with another stalking composition calculated to disturb with its shrill tremolos and descent into doom under a surprisingly sad melody. These atmospheric fusions beyond sheer brutality, where twisting guitars and manic rhythms shift into something beautiful—in a creepy, dissonant kind of way—stand out markedly. The aforementioned highlights aside, the way “Stigmata Scourge” practically melts through descending guitar into the ambiance of “Lucid” is spine-chilling.

Were more of this sinister melodic subcurrent maintained throughout, Dreams of Dysphoria would be unignorably great. Though it’s not as if the ‘straightforward’ material is dull. “Body of Punishment” is absolutely out to flay you alive. What is a slight issue is the relative quietness of the guitars, at intervals at least. Far too often, they feel hidden behind the—admittedly stellar—drumming. That this sometimes happens just when hearing that menacing refrain loud and clear would complete the evil experience is a damn shame. On this point, it seems odd that with three guitarists, more isn’t made of the potential for even more dense, sprawling, and chaotic melodic soundscapes. Nonetheless, Vacuous managed to create a record that’s very good anyway. With thrilling tempo changes and transitions into atmospheric high points coming smoothly, plus a runtime that doesn’t even reach 35 minutes, this is an album that leaves you wanting more, not less.

I went into Dreams of Dysphoria unsure what I would discover, but Vacuous made me glad I looked. As a debut, it’s strong, with the germs of brilliance buried in its thick undergrowth. If these tangled vines grow, Vacuous could be a force to be reckoned with in the world of dissonant, atmospheric death metal.

Rating: Very Good
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 256kbps mp3
Label: Me Saco Un Ojo | Dark Descent (CD)
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: October 14th, 2022

Show 1 footnote

  1. Horrible = very good in this context.
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