Having spent a decade building their industrial metal duo into an amorphous six member collective (Total Devastation) without ever finding a clear and consistent direction for that project, vocalist Jaakko Heinonen and drummer Lauri Pikka would spin-off into a more serious direction with sludge/stoner metal hybrid Demonic Death Judge around 2009. Originally formed with members of Kaihoro and Kreyskull the Kymenlaakso, Finland based project wouldn’t really show signs of sentience until their second album (‘Skygods‘, 2012) began to display greater ingenuity beyond stoner metal cliches and hissing, down-tuned sludge metal bumps. Sure, that is a bit reductive to start and those elements are still the basis for the quartet’s sound but it’ll take some seriously blind devotion to stoney sludge rhythms to find any sort of notable spark in their early discography. If ‘Skygods’ was the breakthrough for Demonic Death Judge then (‘Seaweed‘, 2017) was a major point of refinement that found the band shedding their claustrophobic early 2000’s influenced crunch and loosening up a bit, setting their sound apart from the herd. Now arriving in early 2020 with their fourth album in hand, the Finnish quartet are finally coming from somewhere, hitting a remarkable groove, and saying something worthwhile with their music on ‘The Trail’.
Backpedaling a bit, I wouldn’t say the bluesy chunking sludge of Demonic Death Judge‘s first EP (‘Demonic Death Judge‘, 2009) or first album (‘The Descent‘, 2011) were lacking in insight or inspiration but that those records pale when looking back and considering what peers like Dopethrone, Bongzilla, and Horn of the Rhino were doing similarly at the time, injecting real heavy blues/stoner metal rhythms into sludged and often furious records. The major point being that they’d outgrown their situation by 2013 and a great deal of change would come for the better beyond that point. Heinonen‘s rasping sludge vocals yet retain the identity of old but his diction is changed, relaxed even beyond the pipes of ‘Seaweed’; Likewise the free-whipping 90’s stoner metal influenced guitar work that’d been a mere influence in the past begins to fully take over their sound without losing their big stoner, sludge and doom metal hybrid sound. Spacious, ethereal production values and an emphasis on driving rhythms keep the jams coming at a reasonable clip more reminiscent of classic rock, New Orleans styled sludge, and traditional doom metal records. The result is unarguably modern for its professional render but their sludge/rock hybrid feels comfortably mature, familiar, and driven by heavy psychedelic rock sensibilities. Pick any song on Side A for an example, my favorite being the watery lilt of “Shapeshifting Serpents” and you’ll see the strength of their presence long before it leans hard into the swing of its sludge-bulged stoner rock riffs, as if Eyehategod were covering an early Dozer jam.
What is the meaning of this, then? Ye olde feedback loop of self-destruction spiraling a man down to nothing, feeling nothing, before reaching an epiphany towards survival in the face of defeat. See what you need to see in the lyrics but they’re clever enough in their direction that it’ll feel like the right sort of bluesy descent for a sludge record. Beyond the lyrics themselves the whole of the experience speaks to me in the sense that I’d grown up alongside the early days of sludge metal and stoner rock alike so, seeing them collide isn’t an unheard of event but Demonic Death Judge have done it well for a change and it is a rare enough feat to celebrate, for my tastes at least. The theatrical value of Side B‘s launch into “Flood” before the jam of “Fountain of Acid” and the intimate acoustic tension of “Cougar Charmer (Reprise)” all does a fine job of showing a point of evolution beyond the mundane, where even the most jaded stoner/sludge fan could admit the artistic value of what is presented. No, it doesn’t all flow together seamlessly but it wouldn’t be as interesting of a sludge record if it were too neatly presented.
The hiss and the struggle of the climb makes ‘The Trail’ all the more powerful as a listening experience but to be sure the title track drags on a bit too long and I’m not sure “We Have to Kill” makes the most thematic sense in terms of placement; It is a sort of triumphant return to energy but the song might’ve had more impact in the middle of the tracklist. Demonic Death Judge haven’t front-loaded this fourth full-length of theirs but the effect of easing up a bit more on Side B is a small hitch or two in the overall momentum of the tracklist. The full listen doesn’t suffer but the repeatable nature of the first half of the record clashes slightly with the brooding sensation of the second half. I’d still found myself totally lost in their wilderness and loving ‘The Trail’, no doubt there are appreciable big desert rock grooves and 90’s stoner metal influenced riffs all over this thing. Though it fits my own needs as a fan of bluesy sludge metal ‘The Trail’ could be too harsh for some, not miserable enough for others, and likely too stoney for the select few but it is no small niche these Finnish fellowes inhabit and their latest album is above average. I found this one to be up there with my most listened to records of March and I’d suggest it is one of the best records released within that last month. A moderately high recommendation in general and even higher if you’re a fan of sludge metal that still bears a Sabbath groove.
Moderately high recommendation. 3.75/5.0
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