SOULSKINNER – Seven Bowls of Wrath (2020)REVIEW

Sore crusted and drinking hungrily of this bottomless phialē of putrid blood the wrathful judgment given is pitiful, a nourishing fermented decay more than it could ever be anyone’s “just due.” Enriched by blood drunkenness and renouncing ‘God’ ad infinitum despite firestorm, impenetrable darkness and uh, pestilential frog demons puked via seven-headed dragons that’d inspire war and disorder the world over… this Hell on Earth in preparation for the battle of Armageddon couldn’t appear more trite and irrelevant a tale compared to our reality today. If the trumpets were not enough, if the wrath of ‘God’ poured upon non-believers directly by angels was not enough, then whatever other promises John of Patmos intends to keep via the hallucinatory Revelation 16:1-21 will be likewise overcome. False, unkempt and culture devoid religion is fallen dead in the eyes of all but the most desperate among us, zealots and excitable extremists who would take the will of others and conjoin all as slaves to figment and first century fables of imaginative moralistic cultists. Whatever realistic Hell awaits comes by the hand of man and only in a few special cases, those hands are instead true instruments of iron spirituality in craft of ruinous and passionate music playing us out unto the endtyme. Now in their twentieth year and flying their banners highest, Athens, Greece-based death metal quintet Soulskinner continue to not only sustain their craft but to trumpet resoundingly within the realm of thoughtful mid-paced ‘old school’ ideals. Their fifth full-length ‘Seven Bowls of Wrath’ arrives on its own terms, once again grasping the spirit of death metal via a slow-weaving electrical storm preceded by flashes of thunderous, lofty melodicism.

We’ll have to stretch all the way back to 1993 to find the cause of the storm as intermittent black metal project Thou Art Lord and short lived melodic death metal band Vanity would form. Vanity was notable for its feature of original Nightfall guitarist Christos Adamou but also as one of the earliest places we find guitarist Bill Zobolas on tape. He would briefly become a temporary live guitarist for Rotting Christ and feature on Nergal‘s debut album in 1995. By 1997 Zobolas would form his own group Terra Tenebrosa along with Costas V. (Obsecration) and Baron Blood (RIP) of Necromantia for a demo tape and soon an album where Costas V. would be replaced by Gothmog of Thou Art Lord, since his band was to be on hiatus for some time. This isn’t meant as a definitive history lesson but rather a way to illustrate the series of events that would lead up to ‘Subconscious‘ the debut album from Terra Tenebrosa, essentially the initial seedling of what Soulskinner would become despite unsteady line-ups for about a decade beyond ’97. We build up towards ‘Subconscious’ because its compositional references and style does actually relate to some of the pieces on ‘Seven Bowls of Wrath’ where melodic black/death metal is nestled in the pure death metal heart of the band at this point.

Soulskinner would form in 2000, yes a few years before Fleshcrawl‘s ‘Soulskinner‘ album, and without as much of the Hellenic black metal sound in mind for their debut (‘Breeding the Grotesque‘, 2003) than before. This falls into line with what Obsecration were doing around the time in some sense, primarily because they were using a drum machine but also because their imagery was notably similar. Their second album (‘Echoes of Sickness‘, 2007) was even more similar due to featuring Obsecration‘s drummer on this far more brutal record with a sort of Vader-esque reach for the time period. These first two formative records were decent for their time due to featuring a balance of heavy metal leads, melodic death metal riffing, and the aforementioned propensity for brutality. I wouldn’t say the band would nail it until they’d found the right line-up and stylistic focus around 2014 where Zobolas would shift towards a more ‘old school’ style of mid-paced death metal that focused even more intently upon classic riff styles. ‘Crypts of Ancient Wisdom‘ (2014) was a defining record for Soulskinner due to its doomed blend of Bolt Thrower, Autopsy and their own unique sense of composition and pacing. The album would win me over enough that it would gain fairly high placement on my personal best of 2014. To compound this ‘second wind’ for the project and their focus on old school death metal ‘Descent to Abaddon‘ (2017) would arrive with even bolder strokes of those same influences, thrashing a bit harder in the process. These are quite underrated works and a necessary trajectory that explains why ‘Seven Bowls of Wrath’ arrives so fully formed, insightful, and sure of itself. They’ve found a new way forward, not unlike the Obsecration record (‘Onwards the Mystic Paths of the Dead‘) which Zobolas provided lead guitars for recently, where honing in on the next stage means crafting timeless and melodic death metal with plenty of riffs arrives in the exact right spirit of the sub-genre.

The right balance of brutality, heaviness and epic melodic intent is a demanding process to refine and that you can hear the work has been put in ends up being the great strength of ‘Seven Bowls of Wrath’, that it is perfectly semi-melodic. Each piece is guided by melodic leads, phrasal riffs, ‘old school’ meat grinding and such but beyond those key traits the greater mood and statement of the album is directional, intentionally laid out as a complete and focused set of compositions. As often as I do enjoy a series of vignettes for high quality riffs the impact of a piece matters more if I’m to keep it available in my archives for decades. Big personnel changes arrive alongside these stylistic refinements, most notably this is the first Soulskinner album without original vocalist Gothmog who is replaced by Marios Lampouridis of still somewhat lesser known death metal band Necrorgasm and this difference is cushioned somewhat by the movement towards melodic death metal. What constitutes melodic death metal today? Oh man, there couldn’t be a more loaded observation in this case but thankfully any knowledge of prior mentioned black/death metal acts from Hellas should provide fine points of reference. First consider the return of Thou Art Lord in the 2010’s and then stroll back to early Septic Flesh and yes, even that first Terra Tenebrosa album we’d emphasized earlier. Think of funereal, lead driven events that don’t emphasize major key uprising so much as the dissolving rapture of early Swedish melodic death, not exactly A Canorous Quintet (or, actually A Mind Confused?) but hey, you might hear an inkling of that melodrama in a song like opener “Night”; A triumphant Greek version, though.

If you, like me, have been singing the praises of ‘Mystic Places of Dawn‘ and Horrified‘s ‘In the Garden of the Unearthly Delights‘ upon deaf ears for decades — Here the mysticism of early Hellenic black metal meets an interpretation of a very specific ideation of melodic death metal in the early 90’s, a pocket of brilliance where my own enthusiasm stems from. ‘Seven Bowls of Wrath’ bears some semblance but we’re not talking ‘Temple of the Lost Race’ here, so the riff aficionados can relax their cheering just yet. But hey, before I cut into yet another bout of other great things we can instead just get to the riffs and the masterful tension of Zobolas‘ arrangements. We must consider that pieces of this album were written or performed under the duress of plague, quarantine, and uncertain times where Soulskinner‘s usual goals of balanced “brutality, heaviness and epic melodies” arrive effected and perhaps even more inspired to continue with even more gusto than ever. Not only this but they’re taking more chances in stepping away from the gloomy black-and-white Mark Riddick world of bone-stomping doomed death and into a full technicolor statement piece of ‘biblical’ proportions.

“The Principles of Truth” best conveys these larger observations via a steady melodic arc that feels distinctly in the tradition of Greek extreme metal, leads that climb along the peaks of riffs, circling slow as predator readying an hidden attack. This piece whips into action without complex tempo changes, managing the aforementioned tension via the rise-and-fall of tremolo’d riffing. Simple as the movements appear at first these are sophisticated enough to please any fan long-waiting for the follow-up to ‘The Regal Pulse of Lucifer’ but within a death metal context and you will easily recognize the guitarist’s lead handiwork in each. From there we reach a series of peaks in this style, notably “Eternal” and the even more Swede-reaching high of “Primitive Light”. Side B or, the second half infatuates us with some of the lead work you’ll heartily recognize if you were a fan of ‘Onwards the Mystic Paths of the Dead’ earlier this year, but perhaps none of the death/thrash as the melodic intent of the album has fully taken over as we lean into the title track. This is quite intentionally a peak and a threshold on the full listen that has fully boosted into the realm of melodic death metal. I’d still label it a semi-melodic record but they do fully get there on the considerable second half of the full listen. All of this motif certainly requires some reflection and the major repeating motifs of the album took some time to sink in, there may not be a wallop of grand variety throughout but no doubt if this record were an orchestral composition it would feel most complete as it ended despite my having lost track of the characterization riffs from track-to-track in the moment.

Just as Soulskinner found an interesting angle into ‘old school’ basement rotting death metal on their underrated ‘Crypts of Ancient Wisdom’ so do they address the melodic eventuality of this sound in their own valuable way. ‘Seven Bowls of Wrath’ is a joy to repeat, to pick through or sit back in ear of not only for its deft hand applied to spiritually sound semi-melodic death metal but for the kinship that forms with these statements as they hook in and demand further listening. The experience is surely knowable and likely reducible but its elaborate, slow-burning and nuance presentation of ideas should absolutely not be rushed through or jammed without at least some earnest attention. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (80/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
TITLE:Seven Bowls of Wrath
LABEL(S):Xtreem Music
RELEASE DATE:November 11th, 2020
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Death Metal,
Semi-Melodic Death Metal

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