INCANTATION – Sect of Vile Divinities (2020)REVIEW

If there was any still-standing death metal band from the late 80’s with a history worth delving into in great detail it is most definitely the now Pennsylvania-based, and always John McEntee lead, Incantation. That’d be the angle I’d usually take with what I consider an important ‘legacy’ band whom embody their own zeitgeist amongst numerous spheres of influence spanning three decades of death metal but, since their return from an extended hiatus (2006-2012, in terms of full-lengths) I’ve found hooking into nostalgia without soaking in the present day doesn’t do justice to this reinvigorated and intently professional era for the band. Why do folks still go nuts over Incantation? Is it a Slayer kinda thing, a long-dead cult mindset that fans have held onto longer than the artist? No, for sure the ‘old school’ crowd is at the heart of the experience on any given album what with McEntee still representing the handful of young men who’d seen the horizon of death metal beyond extreme thrash metal in the mid-80’s and went for it, but the root of Incantation‘s staying power is passion expressed through persistence and an unwavering ability to adapt to hardship, unpredictable line-up shifts, and label fracas over the years well enough to keep their heads above water. At the very least hail, or bump a fist with anyone so willing to sacrifice themselves to the barely profitable world of true death metal and ask very little in return, entirely sans egotism.

Prolific by classic standards, pioneering for many of their characteristics, influential upon myriad forms (death/doom, ‘caverncore’, etc.) and one of the most consistent touring shows of the last twenty years Incantation are not just an anomalous gift to death metal for their lack of rockstar ego but for their riffs and well, you didn’t pick up ‘Sect of Vile Divinities’ just because you despise christendom or liked the Eliran Kantor painting. What you’re expecting from this record is going to entirely depend upon your experiences with some (or all) of John McEntee‘s grand caste of collaborators over the years spanning twelve full-lengths and countless other releases. I can put on any Incantation record and not only enjoy it front to back but identify it by ear due to each of the four key vocalists (Pillard, Corchado, Saez, McEntee) expressing differently within a similar register, and because of their three main producer/renderer relationships (Steve Evetts, Bill Korecky, Dan Swanö) marking each ‘era’ of the band distinctly and often in tandem with shifting songwriting collaborators. For some personal context, ‘Diabolical Conquest‘ has been my favorite Incantation record since it’s release in 1998 and I tend towards the albums in their discography that lean into the slower-paced death/doom adjacent sounds, perhaps most characteristically that of ‘Mortal Throne of the Nazarene‘ (1994) and more recently ‘Dirges of Elysium‘ (2014) and ‘Profane Nexus‘ (2017). The first thing you’ll notice about ‘Sect of Vile Divinities’ as it fires up is that it isn’t going to demand patience with a slow-burner to start and you’ll hit the halfway mark before it starts to feel like Incantation‘s subtly doomed self. These short n’ fiery classic death metal rippers injected across the tracklist are a beast of balance, though, and should not be overlooked too quickly.

If you’re only on board with 90’s Incantation, you might appreciate the moderately thrashed-out attack that dominates about half of the twelve songs here from McEntee and crew but ‘Sect of Vile Divinities’ isn’t a throwback to ‘Onward to Golgotha’ so much as a continuation of the thread started with ‘Vanquish in Vengeance’ early last decade as the band found some revitalization of their sound working with Dan Swanö. No doubt the legions of bands borrowing sound and style from early Incantation records haven’t encouraged McEntee to do a pandering type of throwback and instead each step forward develops upon the last or diverges in a slightly different direction. Seeing this consistency of core line-up produce steadfast results leaves the minutiae of each record more or less boiling down to choices of tone, composition, and flourishes such as the stylistic bent of the lead guitarists involved. Could I possibly unpack any further qualifiers before mentioning anything practically analyzed? Sure, but I’ll relent to suggest ultimately the positive divergence found on this record outweighs some of the slightly ‘off’ moments that stuck in mind on preview listens and others long after: One or two of the solos are ill-fitting, and the rhythm guitar tone is a bit different.

‘Sect of Vile Divinities’ is the second album self-recorded by the band via drummer Kyle Severn‘s (Shed the Skin) home studio and they’ve suffered no ill consequence in terms of fidelity for it. This time around the only issue I could come up with stems from the overdrive (probably) on the main rhythm guitar which sounds digital or oddly crisped over when the album hits its faster paced moments amounting to a chaotic buzz rather than their typical thunderous hits. This is easily acclimated to and eventually appreciated for being different, I’d stopped noticing it around the time the third single “Entrails of the Hag Queen” hit and soon began to enjoy the unbridled static crunch of it on the second half of the album. Man, am I going to get to the riffs yet? Yeah, I mean from the get-go we’re struck with that good ol’ late 90’s USDM sound, entirely written for its menacing qualities and fueled by the crawl n’ attack modus that has sustained Incantation for decades. “Ritual Impurity (Seven of the Sky is One)” is an incredibly direct opener, shredding it out wailing and wobbling through what I’ve long called ‘drunken master’ riffing, grandiose builds and extreme doom influenced lows as framework for blasphemic death metal style that persists with style that is more memorable than the inherent song structure itself.

The first half of ‘Sect of Vile Divinities’ maintains its focus (via bassist Chuck Sherwood) as prose conjuring images of newborn sacrifice via Moloch, Lamashtu, Rangda, Ama and other less direct odes to defiled wombs of life and death. This ‘mother Earth, mother death’ envisioned via ancient cults and their outrageous gods and daimon is only my interpretation but I appreciated the scene and setting of each song being consistent yet adventurous between several ancient civilizations. “Black Fathom’s Fire” is probably the most effective enmeshing of lyrical imagery conjured with the song itself, a piece that begins barreling through angular chromatic wrought-iron bends before easing into pinch harmonics, wailing leads and an arabesque doom rhythm. It isn’t the first song worth showing up for on the running order but it is the point on the album that’d grabbed me by the shoulders and shook its malevolent energy into me — Per my own expectations, the first evil spell was cast and that’d helped bring me back in for additional listens as the poison of possession set in.

“Chant of Formless Dread” kicks off Side B with a moodiness I’d compare to the ‘Decimate Christendom’ era of the band where some of the deeper intricacies that’d characterized their time with Joe Lombard (RIP) begin to sprawl out as the second half of the album rings out. A feeling of dread and discordance creeps over me every time I listen to “Shadow-blade Masters of Tempest” and that feeling manifested as a pleasurable sort of disgust before it’d become one of the more charming and angularly presented pieces on the full listen. This sense of stumbling but stoic attack is righteously representative of how Incantation have long bent expectations in slight ways without ever sounding stuck in a certain era or mindset. This isn’t just another album at this point and I’m not sure if there has been one as I re-listen to their entire discography, I mean even ‘Blasphemy’ gets a bit of raw deal considering that production/drum sound was entirely acceptable at the time. I digress, though. We’re hit with a few more doom-oriented songs, they’ve back-loaded this record with much of its headier golden stuff and “Unborn Ambrosia” has long been at the top of my list of songs that’d convinced me to love this record thanks to its (again) balance of doom and decayed death metal.

At this point most Incantation records fart out after about 40 minutes kinda glooming their way to the finish line but the second single/preview track (“Fury’s Manifesto“) actually shows up with a burst of thrashing death energy, a key point of balancing the load on the full listen. This is a total mouth-slapper, a song I’d seen a lot of folks scratching their heads at but it is clearly a shot in the arm for the sake of a high energy “throwback”. My interpretation anyhow, I appreciate the sum effect of the shorter, ripping tracks dotted across the tracklist for the sake of the chaos they create and the auld spirit they embrace. “Siege Hive” not only maintains this momentum but builds upon it twofold unto an impressive grand finale, the clincher and the perpetual final nail tamped down in deciding to flip the record back over and hit up Side A for more. Flailing, diving, and trilling solos feed this fast-paced monster before it breaks down into hellish cacophony, the familiar warmth of classic death metal has fully set in at this point and I was pretty sold on the full experience despite not feeling the rhythm guitar tone off the bat. So, what do you want from Incantation? As it turns out they’ve done a fine job of finessing the faster thrashing stuff in with the doom n’ crawling miasma that’d dominated the previous two records. This harmonious ruin achieved throughout ended up being a pat on the back despite my early reservations, as if to say: “Hey, sure it’s been a few years kid but we’re still going to kill you.” A high recommendation.

High recommendation.

Rating: 8 out of 10.
TITLE:Sect of Vile Divinities
LABEL(S):Relapse Records
RELEASE DATE:August 21st, 2020
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Death Metal

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