DEVOTION – The Harrowing (2021)REVIEW

An induction of a necessary new mutation, equally concerned with our forgotten past yet differently staffed, this second full-length from Valèncian ‘old school’ death metal project Devotion finds its relation to their early 90’s fixated first phase via sustained stylistic concept. This despite some of its lead actors having passed-on or, missing from the plot. Evolving identity that yet retains the core spirit of the original concept is naturally desirable within the realm of retro death metal yet we rarely come across such changes as found on ‘The Harrowing’ those which manage to be eventful, purposeful and arguably a better formed result than a predecessor. Though the Spanish quintet manage to sound like a different band in the process of their greater transformation ‘The Harrowing’ presents these newly seated major drivers (two new guitarists, lighter keyboard use) with a rugged-yet-sophisticated rhythmic churn that still invokes an era-appropriate sound with the flair of classic death/doom metal always nearby.

Formed circa 2012 with the most notable common ground shared between members being their part in the original reformation of legendary Spanish death metal demo band Obscure (who’d release a debut LP in 2019), beyond that point Devotion were fated to arrive fully formed and with a fairly unique take on a smaller niche of classic death metal forms. Thanks to their shared collective membership with some of Spain’s most notable death artists (Graveyard, Orthodoxy, etc.) in key roles the result of their formation (‘Necrophiliac Cults‘, 2015) was an initially self-released record that felt like they’d ironed out ten years worth of learning in just three. The quickest way to describe the appeal of Devotion‘s style centers around their profound appreciation for early 90’s death metal bands that’d hinge keyboards/synth performances as a central atmospheric element, taking some certain influence from Mike Browning-related projects, minus the propensity for Nocturnus‘ death-thrashing kinetics. So, flip your thoughts towards the headspace of Acheron‘s ‘Rites of the Black Mass’, Pestilence‘s ‘Testimony of the Ancients’, and perhaps even Eternal Dirge‘s lesser known ‘Khaos Magick’ a few years beyond. This would likely be interesting enough a thought for most fans of old school progressive or “symphonic” death metal of a certain era but Devotion go a step further in their inclusion of mid-paced death/doom sections which have a sound closer to early Mystic Charm or Asphyx.

The major point of differentiation from the norm on ‘Necrophiliac Cults’ was inarguably the inclusion of Basque musician Igor Mesmer‘s (RIP) keyboard/effects work as he’d long been notable for his darkwave/neofolk project Circuncelion, adding some well-developed voicing to the project. That is to say that Mesmer‘s symphonic elements were important to the charm of that record and that the guitar riffs were at least up to par, even if they were not able to “keep up” in terms of spectacle. As I’d suggested prior, core influences and modus are essentially the same on ‘The Harrowing’ but delivered by a different configuration of musicians and this makes for a slightly more straight forward spin. The first thing you might notice is that they’ve separated most tracks with keyboard/synth interludes a la ‘Testimony of the Ancients’. I don’t think this has ever truly benefitted any extreme metal record, there are just a few that succeed despite the constant interruption of a dungeon synth riff or Casio keyboard war march. As an aside, at least the narration intervals on Resurrection‘s ‘Embalmed Existence‘ never caught on, eh? In terms of how it works here, I’d say they’ve made sure each interlude is well-placed and only helps to create one continuous flow of death metal; This only becomes more useful in tying the whole disc together when Devotion decide to focus on slithering Lovecraftian death/doom on the second half of the album. Fans of early Netherlands death/doom and the odd stateside group such as Sorrow or (early) Morta Skuld should appreciate this side of the band immediately while also noting that these aren’t the most memorable classic acts within the niche.

Horror fantasy atmospherics and the brutality of death metal circa 1992 is the core of ‘The Harrowing’ experience and this means mid-to-thrash paced riffing prone to dip into tribal and/or ethereal points of rest as evidenced by opener “God Forlorn”, wherein angelic funeral keys follow the death/doom riff progression at the heart of this ‘War Master’-era Bolt Thrower chunked piece. The production of ‘The Harrowing’ isn’t exaggerated or bombastic in any sense, but dead and thumping with minimal blowback or obviate reverb, this not only helps to create a compressed ‘old school’ death metal feel but ensures the simple slugging of Devotion‘s riffs are exacting, no-frills and easily followed between movements. “Megiddo’s” follows this with one of the more directly thrashed out pieces, the sort of song you’d expect credits for solos to be inserted into the lyrics. Its own death/doom paced break creates an expectation of keyboard accompaniment when things settle to a slog and in this case there is a Sumerian daemonic vibe hovering throughout this piece, both for the serpentine main riff and the choral keys that lift the crunch of the song upward. Follow this with a minute long interlude and we’ve gotten the general modus and pacing of Devotion down, two 5-8 minute death metal pieces at mid-to-slow paced dynamic with bookended atmospheric buffers. Conceptually speaking this should allow more than enough “rests” for the mind to reflect and accumulate appreciation for what Devotion are doing quickly but in fact this makes for an unusually distracted trip where thirteen pieces felt like a bit much to take in across a ~50 minute album. This might take some adjustment for non-death/doom obsessives but I’d found it eerie and psychedelic in nature just like the best horror b-movies tend to be. The only issue I’d pull from the pairs of death metal songs is that each becomes more about the predictable break, slow riff and keyboard accompaniment without stuffing in truly killer riffs before and after.

“Birth of Horror” is more-or-less the main event and a pivotal moment for the album, the piece to solidify the major arc of what Devotion are doing on this second album and the song to make the most sense of the ’92 death metal assault, the keyboard-guided death/doom churn and the overall funereal vibe that ‘The Harrowing’ excels within. On that same point, the opening salvo of riffs just isn’t all that exceptional and only the diabolical church organ weighted chorus pushes the song towards sublime memorability. On casual listens I’d felt like I was going a bit insane, if only for the fact that I’d zone out in my multi-tasking and only give this album any focus when “Birth of Horror” entered the fray. I’d pay attention from that point on but there wasn’t any major reason to latch onto the first half of the experience otherwise or, at least until I’d given ‘The Harrowing’ some serious focus and analysis. Now, pushing beyond “Mangled Angels” at the halfway point we find the real payoff for giving Devotion the time of day as the key board arrangements become part of the verses, the death/doom pace ratchets up its presence and we find the band thriving best within their slower, longer numbers. The farty trumpet synth of “The Mournful Beam” add to this feeling that this band are aiming to sound exactly like a band doing their best with the resources available in the early 90’s and though it might sound amateurish for a second, this is likely to be a majorly endearing moment for longtime death/doom metal fans and especially those who’ve spent the last several decades scouring the internet for lesser known gems and lost tapes; The double-bass roll of this song should invoke the later half of ‘Covenant’ in a satisfying way, also. The final few pieces are a peak and perhaps best left for you to discover but I’d found myself only moderately impressed with the full experience in reflection after about fifteen or so listens.

Devotion excel at creating simple, morbid death metal songs that bring subtle hooks and eerie atmospheric presence via keyboard accompanied slower riffs. Though this is enough to make the album admirable and a solid full listen, by the time I’d exhausted myself of its finer details I wasn’t sure if ‘The Harrowing’ had really developed any new interest after the fifth or so spin. The full listen had become predictable and perhaps a bit sleepy each time I’d sit to reflect upon its greater trip. Getting there was a good time, perhaps because I am particularly enthusiastic about auld death/doom sounds and off kilter keyboards in ‘old school’ death metal context but I was yet disappoint to see an a dryly simple dynamic repeated in view of their first album. That isn’t to say the value of ‘The Harrowing’ isn’t justified but only that I’d worn it to death much quicker than expected. Not a true complaint but not a glowing response either, the only real complaint I have is perhaps trivial as I just didn’t enjoy the aesthetic of the album art. All of this said I’d still give a moderately high recommendation of Devotion’s second album, there are a grip of phantasm-cursed death metal moments to be had here.

High recommendation. (70/100)

Rating: 7 out of 10.
TITLE:The Harrowing
LABEL(S):Memento Mori
RELEASE DATE:January 25th, 2021
BUY:Memento Mori Website
GENRE(S):Death Metal

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