VALGRIND – Condemnation (2020)REVIEW

Entrenched deep within the thoroughly bureaucratic system of checks-and-balances experienced in the throes of Duat, facing the second to last test of eligibility for immortality saw the deceased facing the most harrowing mutant form yet, the demoness Ammit. Crocodile face, hippopotamus-assed, and with a lioness’ torso the claw n’ maw of this great beast were imagined as the greatest man-eater alive, weighing a feather from the hat of Ma’at (goddess of justice, balance, and truth) against the heart of those being judged as a test for purity. It was not enough for ancient Egyptians to die once and face the scrutiny of the Gods but if Ammit deigned your heart impure she would then devour it, an act seen as a ‘second death’ or eternal tormented damnation of the soul. Imaginative and mystic in their fascinating depth as these sort of myths are, they are tales spun to control the actions of enslaved populations with ever-shifting moralistic standards deigned by tyrannical men ordained as ‘Gods’. Damnation or condemnation to Hell and the lifetime of fear it instills in men and women is a major theme of the fourth full-length from long-standing Italian death metal trio Valgrind — ‘Condemnation’ not only pulls from mythic damnation of men (often by goddess’ hand) to their feared underworlds but of gods and beasts to their prisons as constellations among the sea of stars in reaching for epic tales to match the classic yet ‘epic’ spirited death metal songs within.

I’d already detailed much of Valgrind‘s early career leading up to their fantastic third record ‘Blackest Horizon‘ (2018) in that review but the short of it is that they’d formed as a black/death metal project in San Lazzaro di Savena around 1996, heavily inspired by Florida’s classic death metal scene as well as Immolation and Pestilence. They would split-up after their first EP (~2003) and regroup in 2008 with different roles including a key member out front, Daniele Lupidi of Hateful, whom also have a new record out this year. Four albums have followed since and the progression has pushed from notable (early) Immolation and Morbid Angel influenced records towards what I’d consider their ‘breakthrough’ moment, the thrashing Nocturnus-esque ‘epic’ feeling of ‘Blackest Horizon’. ‘Condemnation’ doesn’t pick up directly after its predecessor and instead creates what that album had implied as their signature aim, a mix of classic death metal style informed by extreme thrash and epic heavy metal. This doesn’t suggest extended song length so much as it combines austere extreme metal riffcraft with the sheer attack of death/thrash and early 90’s death metal. While this sound retains some elements of modern sophistication Valgrind are indisputably ‘old school’ death metal in action, lining up with the best of Pestilence as often as the prior album had a certain Nocturnus bent attack.

The first of many tales of fantastic beasts to come is preceded by a short intro, a fairly simple keyboard progression, ominous yet celestial and ancient in purpose as it precedes opener “The Curse of Pegasus Spawn”. A piece that will perk the ears of folks who’d loved the most recent Lantern record to some degree, and bearing a brilliant heavy metal riff as its driving keystone this song is difficult to parse without using the word “epic” due to its grand and semi-melodic sections compressed in between an aggressive delivery. Razor-swiped riffs amidst rock solos and surprising refrains had this first piece catching me off guard upon initial listens, no point of reference was entirely clear and the music was immediately allowed to just be Valgrind‘s own point of ideological time compression. As my mind swayed between Mi’gauss, Thanatos and Manilla Road from moment to moment there wasn’t an obvious point of influence beyond the vocal register, which is somewhere between early Sinister and I suppose for the sake of an Italian artist, Electrocution‘s Mick Montaguti circa ’90. With only the atmosphere and attack as familiar elements I’d warmed to “The Curse of Pegasus Spawn” quickly, seeing it as the embodiment of their auld stated goal of early 90’s death metal with epic doom metal austerity in mind. That isn’t to say that a Candlemass fan is going to find curious love within Valgrind‘s attack but that there is a theatrical musical narrative thread running through ‘Condemnation’ that suits the lofty mythical horrors described in its lyrical themes.

The bulk of the album follows suit in the sense that it combines frantic and constant death metal riffing with influences spanning all manner of classic heavy metal and thrash metal ideologues. The title track, “Condemnation”, is the most clear offender as it rips out a thrashing barrage of circa ’92 death metal riffs and intensifying lead runs before hitting upon a small Metallica-esque nod as the song nears the three minute mark. It expresses as a piece pulled from the subconscious, deliberate in its forceful style but effortless in its ‘old school’ motions. Therein Valgrind represent themselves with what I’d consider a classic-spirited confidence, an attack that is inherently melodic without any need for any specific generational fixation to communicate as much. The natural conclusion from there might be a sound akin to Arghoslent but I’d swerve you towards Ares Kingdom circa ‘Incendiary’ a bit more and then back towards (early) Sinister without losing sight of aforementioned influences; “The Day” has a bit of ‘Blessed are the Sick’ in its swing, for example. You get the point by now, Valgrind are painting with a palette that is broad and sourced from decades of extreme metal guitar fandom, there is a bit of everything here but also a very distinct death metal statement coming from the songwriting when all is considered. Of course, this’ll just be a lot of “It’s fuckin’ death man!” to a lot of readers but, if your taste in death metal thins out considerably beyond ~1995 you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Peeling back the lyrical focus of the record was of great interest to me as a fan of mythic underworlds, vengeful gods & goddesses, and pre-scientific explanation of natural phenomenon. Ammit is the focus of “Eater of Hearts”, Tiamat (or Salacia?) the focus of “Goddess of the Salt Sea”, and the subject of “The Furies” is self-explanatory. This greater theme is actually somewhat similar to Kawir‘s most recent record where female vengeance features as a key actor in creation myth, damnation, and judgement. The female icon as a source of truth, morality, and justice juxtaposed with femininity also being the characteristic gatekeeper to the afterlife leaves men as absurd, buffoon hero-children in the realms of Gods, mortals and even in Hell no matter the ancient civilization sourced. Well, there is a coherent thought in there somewhere on my part but more importantly these songs are written in description of great violence and horror, keeping the flesh ripping and psyche-tearing in tune with the destructive-yet-regal death metal they accompany. Themes are otherworldly with a continent-sized point of view fitting of the polished but punishing tonality of the record which receives its fine render by way of a mix Cristiano Copat (KK Recording Studio), and master from the Midas touch of Damian Herring (Subterranean Watchtower Studios). All of this comes together in fine form right down to the artwork itself, where ‘Condemnation’ features an original painting/illustration by Lupidi himself who has likewise done stunning work for Assumption, Ataraxy, Voids of Vomit as well as his own band Hateful over the years. The piece conjoins the lyrical themes into an image that echoes the mythic beasts at the core of the album’s statement, a decimated primordial Gaia, and piles of massive death. With consideration for the complete artistic statement the level of detail and care put into ‘Condemnation’ is stunning yet the music maintains the very simple appeal of riff-heavy old school death metal. It is a triumph for the long-standing band and their most cohesive work to date. A high recommendation.

High Recommendation

Rating: 8 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Memento Mori
RELEASE DATE:July 28th, 2020
GENRES:Death Metal

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