SEPULCHRAL CURSE – Only Ashes Remain (2020)REVIEW

The hope is that greater species and civilizations have not only existed across the random number generation of the stars but also that their inevitable collapse came with more dignity than that of Earth’s humanity. With no ideological wars to fight and no habitat to speak of amongst great storms and churning, poison-slicked waters only the deepest inbred generations of greed remain huddled in elaborate bunker, or surviving as vermin — Drinking fungal condensation from cave walls and eating sightless bugs ’til madness takes them to the mouth to die or, down the tubes to mutate into horrors. Finnish death metal quintet Sepulchral Curse have pondered blame and set upon scornful speech for the ills of humanity (religion, specifically) on previous formative releases but in reaching for their debut full-length, ‘Only Ashes Remain‘, they see the present and the future as Ragnarök in motion, a series of natural disasters and reclamation of all soil to kick off our demise.

Based in the southwest coastal town of Turku, the folks who’d piece together Sepulchral Curse started the band with a loose idea meant to be a bit different from their time in various melodic extreme metal acts as well as the (then) firming reality of Solothus‘ death/doom metal style. Black metal tinged ‘old school’ death metal intent translated to what I’d consider a crap EP with good intentions (‘A Birth in Death‘, 2014) leaning towards some traditional death, thrash, and melodic black metal ideas without having really figured how their meshing might work. I don’t mind being harsh with regard to that first EP simply because they’d improved and built so much character in the two years that followed, soon releasing a solid second EP (‘At the Onset of Extinction‘, 2016) which did a much better job communicating their intent, fully finding rhythms that were not only up to par but indicative of their own style. At this point some members had started another extreme doom metal band, Yawning Void, who’d release a remarkably underrated debut just last year. The impending debut from Sepulchral Curse learns as many lessons and refines nearly as much as their shift from 2014-2016 yet it does not fully cross the finish line in terms of greatness due to what I’d consider somewhat ‘safe’ choices made throughout. To be fair this will read as consistency and classicism to most and there is a high standard met either way you receive what ‘Only Ashes Remain’ has to offer.

This is not your average Finnish death metal sound and I say that wryly, since there has never been any truly strong definition of that sound where even in the 90’s the bands were wildly divergent and often experimental from release to release. At the very least it doesn’t sound like exemplar notables such as Adramelech or Demigod. Though you should get hints of early Sentenced, a healthy dose of ‘Christhunt‘-era God Dethroned and the flair of early Necrophobic-esque black/death metal melding. This blackened affect is largely aesthetic as the experience is ultimately presented by a pure death metal band who stick to mid-to-fast paced pieces that are semi-melodic. Those melodies are admittedly not deeply memorable and the churn and intensity of the music becomes a more vital trait for the full listen. Their riff-focused songwriting has evolved from a love for classic death and thrash metal ideals, this makes for some dramatic presentation and some strong melodic implication that comes from guitar harmonization and interaction. There are moments that aren’t far from the realm of say, Dawn, but without of the poignant sophistication of No Fashion era Swedish black/death metal. Sepulchral Curse do sometimes wheel over to a speed metallic stature as witnessed on the blackened-edged developments in the second half of album opener “From Within the Bowels of the Earth” where a rock solo swings out as it fades. Well, it isn’t ‘North From Here’ but I figure folks inspired by that sort of riffing and intense composition will find something to like on ‘Only Ashes Remain’.

“Swarming Blackness” is the ‘heads down, get to work’ moment for the full listen, highlighting the strengths and character built within the last four years of tour and rehearsal. Sepulchral Curse‘s guitarists are the most notable point of growth here, providing tighter feats of speed, unison, and harmonization that helps to more clearly define the bands amorphous musical identity. Bass presence is quite heavy but also set entirely too far back in terms of presence, its gravely snaps barely kicking beyond a standard support role. Kari Kankaanpää (Solothus, Yawning Void) is a fine vocalist and always a highlight to any release he touches; His talent for a brutal but not like, belching vocal runs juxtaposes well with the unsettling screeches of drummer Tommi Ilmanen, who provides an unhinged angle-grinder to break things up on a few songs, most notably “Swarming Blackness” and “Into the Depths Unknown”. This is a hold-out from the second EP that I’d hoped they might play up a bit more because it brings in those early Deicide moments where a howl from beyond can quickly create a centerpiece for an album out of an otherwise average track. He pops up again on “Church of Loss” and this is more along the lines of what I’d mean, it pulls interest into an otherwise fairly standard song and enhances the feeling of dread created with a bit of screaming insanity.

Though I’d suggested this project was meant to pull away from their death/doom focused projects nearby the slower, longer pieces here do feel effortless compared to the riff-centered attack that Sepulchral Curse have evolved towards. I’m not sure if “Eyes Inside” and “Maan Tuhkien Uneen” were written more quickly or meant as endpoints for each side of the vinyl but their doomed stature is probably the aspect of this album that doesn’t best match up with the more finesse driven sounds of “Dead Stars Drawing Spirals”, which is my personal favorite track on the album as it feels like it’d been written for ‘Slaughtersun (Crown of the Triarchy)’ at times. So, this is definitely a debut and the cracks in holistic thought do show upon closer examination but the full listen isn’t majorly flawed. The flow is meaningful, the render is sharp and well-mixed, and every instrument has a bit of power. They’ve got the skills and the a sharp sense of compositional interest but what is lacking is the sort of musical statement that you’ll feel rather than simply admire; I’m not saying push into the cheeselands for melody but some manner of sentimental hooks would demand repeat listening and allow the core aptitude of Sepulchral Curse to shine through a bit more. Solothus found this luminance on their third album and I figure the sweet spot for Sepulchral Curse isn’t all that far off. A fine debut and a worthy, non-typical release for the greater Finnish death metal reality. Moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation.

Rating: 7 out of 10.
TITLE:Only Ashes Remain
LABEL(S):Transcending Obscurity Records
RELEASE DATE:July 31st, 2020
BUY/LISTEN/STREAM:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRES:Death Metal

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