Vassafor – To the Death Review

Sophomore slumps are a bitch. I’m a Chicago Bears fan, and while the team has seen a rise in success over the last decade since the Cutler days, quarterback Mitch Trubisky went from reliable to a turnover machine in year two, while opposing offenses learned how to stop edge rusher Khalil Mack from getting sacks every two plays in year two. Thus, the team falls back into “meh” territory, even if it had a good run. The same is true for metal: one album can be a genre-defining piece of art followed by a garbage performance. Abigail WilliamsIn the Absence of Light, Hanging Garden’s TEOTWAWKI, or Celtic Frost’s Cold Lake.1 While mistakes happen and expectations are high, it makes the following album that much more important. Are New Zealand veterans Vassafor capable of a genre-defining performance with their third full-length To the Death?

Vassafor has been around for a while, on and off since 1997, and its pioneering member V. Kusabs is even more prolific. Providing his services to other New Zealand black and/or death proprietors like Temple Nightside, Diocletian, and Irkallian Oracle, among others, Vassafor is his main project, alongside Malevolence drummer Ben Parker. The band sport a Mitochondrion or Adversarial styled take on death/black metal with a thrashy assault-heavy relentlessness combined with eldritch melodies and passages of doomy ominousness. These New Zealanders laid it on thick with 2012’s double LP The Obsidian Codex, expertly balancing relentless blackened death with ritualistic atmosphere and dense doom to create an experience that felt far shorter than its immense hour-and-thirty-five-minute runtime suggested. Enter 2017’s Malediction, which wasn’t… that. While offering a “shorter” listen at fifty-four minutes, it never managed to truly escape the doomy drudgery and wallowed in uneventfulness for nearly an hour. Enter 2020’s To the Death, which outdoes Malediction by a long shot, but is still plagued by other issues.

Longer than Malediction at an hour and six minutes, To the Death is jampacked with a lot of material, most clearly evident is its faster pace and thrashier brutality than previous albums. This works splendidly for tracks like “The Burning íthyr” or “Emanations from the Abyss,” which are relentless and comparatively brief thrashy blackened death pummelers, incorporating the sinister edge of genre-mates Azarath or Belphegor. Downtuned tremolo works very well for the atmosphere they are attempting, making passages throughout cuts like the opening title track and “Eyrie” particularly heavy. Atmospheric ambiance is utilized tastefully and ominously in tracks like interlude “Black Talon” and closer “Singularity,” solidifying To the Death’s eerie occult focus. Solos throughout are executed tastefully and technically, adding a chaotic flourish (title track) or an intimidating presence (“Singularity”). The mixing and production are of note, as the density feels tangible but not so overwhelming that its instruments are lost in the fold.

Vassafor’s downfall is bloatedness. Frankly, with the forefront of a thrashy pace and an absence of the atmospheric dynamics of The Obsidian Codex, every track except the interlude overstays its welcome to some degree. While each selection is composed of brutally concocted pummeling, not all listeners’ ears can be expected to withstand relentless beatdowns for the average nine minutes. Mine certainly grew weary, constantly checking how much longer each track had. While 2012’s effort felt organic and growing across its hour-and-a-half due to its focus on atmosphere, To the Death’s emphasis is riffs. This is fine and dandy, truly, but this riff-centric blueprint overstays its welcome, as tremolo passages in the uneventful “Egregore Rising,” for instance, begin to feel too similar to the better “Emanations from the Abyss.” Ultimately, To the Death attempts to redefine the Vassafor style, which can be interpreted as either career suicide or exploration into new realms.

For fans of the riff, To the Death will satisfy mightily. Featuring thrashy goodness and gooey production up the wazoo, flourishes of eerie melodies, and monstrous atmosphere, Vassafor has concocted a bulletproof palette. However, it’s a bit self-indulgent to weld its riff-worship to its bloated runtime, which is ultimately the main downfall. While To the Death certainly outdoes Malediction in pure energy, it nevertheless falls short of Obsidian Codex in its general lack of dynamics, and has the potential to alienate half of its fanbase and impress the other. While I can appreciate Vassafor’s new energetic direction in To the Death, its bloated length keeps it from truly soaring.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Iron Bonehead Productions
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: August 7th, 2020

Show 1 footnote

  1. I know it’s not sophomore effort, but have you heard it?
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