DESOLATOR – Sermon of Apathy (2020)REVIEW

Deafened by the cryptic wailing of Γαῖα’s slow-moldering lung — At the bleakest summit our clambering limbs liquefy their resolve with eyes aghast. No fresh horizon of promised land remains untouched by scorched earth policy and desperately weaponized plowshares; No escape from bloodied consequence sports any path forward as man’s final mutation is a liminal state of nullity and complacent sedation in white-walled, crumbling tombs. Cyclonic firestorms via the ancient ones and the permissive void of action in the face of cruel dictatorship serve as a double-fisted claw-fingered shred across all life within the prose of Stockholm-based death metal quartet Desolator who’ve reached a point of gloriously stable mutation far, far beyond their original 90’s ‘old school’ focus early last decade. Unknowable cosmic-sized subterranean horrors arise in tandem with peak societal disarray on ‘Sermon of Apathy’, the Swedish band’s second album and one of few to capture what was ‘modern’ and vibrant in the death metal sub-genre’s wells these last two decades and distill a generally tasteful result. Skipping all trends and ‘old school’ worship, the dynamic on offer is thrilling as it is gloom-ridden, nostalgic as it is modern, and always appreciably intense.

North of Stockholm circa 2009, the impetus for the musical careers of essentially the entire original line-up of Desolator was, more or less Desolator though the addition of Stefan Nordstrom, who’d likewise started Ending Quest nearby, would cement a shared goal of classic Swedish death metal forms. Their first demo (‘Gravefeast‘, 2010) found the troop still at a very formative stage within their first recording as a band and I think they’re a bit harsh on it today, it is a fine enough Grave influenced tape. The riff style and vocals have that sense of Swedeath that pulls towards Autopsy‘s sound more of often than not but you’ll also find some alternate picked weirdness and riffs from the more adventurous side of early Stockholm underground works as well as some surreal riff progressions more appropriate for the 2000’s decade. Sure, it wasn’t exactly early ‘Sleepers in the Rift’ (though their drummer did do the cover art for ‘Splendour of Disease’) but still the potential was there in the form of an appreciable journey from point A to B and this characteristic has followed the band no matter the evolution of their style or refinement of technique. Today it feels like a stepping stone but back when it released Desolator‘s debut album (‘Unearthly Monument‘, 2013) was a standout moment for folks seeking bands who bend old school Swedish death metal by their own will. The addition of drummer Victor Parri (Isole, Valkyrja) who’d been much more of a black metal drummer on previous projects took the band in a more brutal dare I say ‘modern’ direction while still retaining clear love for Grave, Bloodbath, and perhaps Vomitory. For 2013 this was more or less the opposite direction of many bands as atmospheric and mid-paced movements were becoming increasingly popular and this helps Desolator stand out in my mind today when looking back on that year in particular. So, if you’re following their development thus far we’ve got a bit of a journey and a brutal one at that, and we’re essentially there in terms of the inevitable point of satisfaction reached on the band’s most recent releases.

Embracing the brutality of the early 2000’s, the ornate moshable structures and groove-driven sparks of life from that era has afforded Desolator a more meaningful second wind since their Immolation-esque ‘Spawn of Misanthropy‘ EP in 2016. Go jump onto the ‘Unholy Cult’ influenced “Sectarian Breed” and you’ll immediately see justification for the “distillation of trendless value” statement from earlier, where you might’ve forgotten (or straight up missed out on) the age of bands like Nile, Aeon, Anata and Bloodbath but surely Desolator have not. These elements begin to show up more and more as ‘Sermon of Apathy’ pushes well into its deeper cuts on Side B but we are headed there nonetheless. First impressions on my end when firing up the album were geared more towards the sharpness of Anata‘s ‘The Infernal Depths of Hatred‘, the slicker and oddly moshable reap of Yyrkoon‘s ‘Occult Medicine‘ (alternately, early Blood Red Throne or Decapitated), and still some latent hints of Immolation (pre-2005 or so). Sure, my mind is packed with literally thousands of 2000’s death metal records I could whip out but, the gist of these references carries some manner of cleanliness, moderate complexity and a basal state of brutality which should not instinctively appear particularly svenska to start.

Of course there is more to it than that and being able to lump the era that’d formed them into a refreshed mold of slightly older forms is just a matter of catching the tone of ‘Sermon of Apathy’ and separating it from the current trend of deeply referential throwbacks to early 90’s death metal. This is a decade advanced beyond in mindset and I’d argue just as tastefully selected without being entirely beholden to legacy band worship or dry sonic references. How then, does Desolator advance beyond the melange of their righteous ‘modern but not trendy mosh shit’ material in 2016? Well, that EP had been an unrepentant firestorm from folks who’ve been otherwise successful in disturbingly effective doom metal acts (Within the Fall, Soliloquium, Isole) and I would suggest the most distinctly Swedish moments come from hints of doom’s resonance very gently showing up around the edges. “Methods of Self-Deception” features the first most prominent bit of melodic guitar work that could be accused of watery despondency and “The Great Law of the Dead” (which features Karl Sanders of Nile on leads in its finale moment) offers some of that muscle memory for pieces with a bit of grandeur inherent. Doom is not a major sub-genre influence across ‘Sermon of Apathy’ but it is on the tip of Desolator‘s tongue in terms of theme and presentation where beyond the terminal notions of death lies some element of human suffering.

Otherwise this album presents itself as a moderately technical feat of rhythm guitar bombast, finding form in the early-to-mid 2000’s zeitgeist while taking myriad inspiration from the last thirty years of death metal along the way. The first single, “Portal Tomb”, sets my mind right back to ~2004-2005 where mainstream death metal had taken the propulsive force of early 2000’s underground “bedroom” brutal death and applied it to bigger, screamingly loud guitar tones and gigantic drum kits all set to kill. The jagged but catchy grooves of bands like Blood Red Throne were more or less the aftermath (and in some ways, the antithesis) of records like ‘In Their Darkened Shrines’ whereas the lucid technicality of bands like Anata were perhaps the result of records like ‘Unholy Cult’. I would say those are the four main structural bodies that inform Desolator‘s stylistic reality today; A bit of tech, some melodicism, otherworldly dips, and plenty of moshable-but-catchy brutality to anchor it all. On the other hand a song like second single “Creatures of Habit” offers a closer look at some progressive death metal elements that are otherwise new to the bands oeuvre and fitting in quite well. The bass tone in particular snakes in and out of the song, giving a slight prog-death nod beneath the breakdown that keys in just past the three minute mark. It does seem as if the singles were chosen to highlight was is different this time around and by emphasizing the more ornate and constantly-shifting pieces the standout impression is that of a complex yet heavy-hitting death metal record. This holds up, as does the notion that Desolator aren’t an ‘old school’ band but they are surely in tune with the old ways despite representing a world class sound with far more substance than similarly bombastic popular bands.

Side A is a complete success, a glorious realization of what was not yet fully formed (but was nonetheless badass) on ‘Spawn of Misanthropy’. Side B then proceeds to push even deeper beyond those forms with some of the finest pieces on the album starting with the remarkable tech-swipes and grinding breaks of “The Human Condition” where even the simplest mosh riffs find value in the adornment of their surroundings via their smart placement. What might’ve been a required “circle pit” song back in the mid-2000’s is now utilized as a cannon blast to punctuate the exit of the song’s main theme. Sure, this sort of riff and moment holds up better with rapt attention rather than casual listening but it doesn’t feel as lazy as chug riffs often do on the back half of death metal records. The almost “Mandatory Suicide”-esque vocal lines of “Vaticide” bring even more chug our way but again with the goal of an oppressive blast, this is perhaps the piece that had me pulling out my old Blood Red Throne records and comparing this sort of simple, -core chug piece for reference. But the second half really centers around the anticipation for the previously mentioned “The Great Law of the Dead” which again features a solo from Karl Sanders as well as vocals from Phidion‘s Oliver Palmquist. This is a grand finale for the album and the sort of full-ranged type of songwriting I’d certainly like to hear more of from Desolator as it flexes a certain ‘epic’ flavor of death metal muscle that suits their sound well and allows for some breathing room on an otherwise oft-tautly wound record. The riff change around 3:50 minute mark is incredible and there I think folks will begin to key into the constant mention of Anata on my part, if the opening track wasn’t obvious enough. The listening experience is well-rounded and effective thought not outright catchy so much as it is impressively arranged. Plenty of detail to follow along with, lots of exciting riffs and a few big change-ups but don’t expect any sort of ‘hook’ to get lost in, this isn’t that sort of death metal.

I’ve been well-impressed by this release after having followed Desolator since 2013 and finding some great hype for them when their EP released in 2016. ‘Sermon of Apathy’ exceeds expectations in crossing over into some nigh progressive (but still brutal) territory and resembles some of my favorite ‘modern’ death metal bands in the process. The CD packaging is of a certain higher quality thanks to Lovecraftian artwork via Alex Tartsus and the only ding I’d give to the complete image comes from not liking the title font. Here’s hoping this one justifies a vinyl release sales-wise as the image is worthy and the music deserves some measure of immortality for its well-picked nods to the past and present successes of death metal. A high recommendation.

High recommendation.

Rating: 8 out of 10.
TITLE:Sermon of Apathy
LABEL(S):Black Lion Records
RELEASE DATE:September 4th, 2020
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Death Metal

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