GHASTLY – Mercurial Passages (2021)REVIEW

In the space of fifteen years I’d watched the ocean dissolve a twenty foot wall of sandy earth that’d once separated an ivy and pine-thickened forest from our favorite beach. On the final day, when the wall became surmountable, climbable and began collapsing, the loam-spring beneath my feet was aided by the mushrooms in my blood. Thick layers of various windblown detritus, from whatever trees were left clinging to their disintegrating wall, still sank four inches deep underfoot, bugs (imagined or otherwise) scattering beneath every step. When confrontation became necessary and the churn hypnotic enough, the waves called as green-tinted and rolling masses of golden disembodied hands, toppling with an steadfast grip — Intent on weaving light into shimmering, illusory fabric as they made their horrifying advance. To others beside me the face of ‘God’ appeared within this molten reflection, a tie-dyed liquid light show brought into view by recreational drugs in the form of wind-blasted celestial tendrils, yet all I’d felt for this electrifying moment and for the last twenty years was an private attunement with the natural forces of decay and the slow-motion violence of erosion. All outward-set bliss comes by way of the naïve actor, incapable of the nullity of balance and the horror that all happiness cost. By shoving our face in the soil and letting worms and bugs crawl through mouth and nostrils we better come to terms with the bitter, flattening grind of life and death. Breathing in the psychoactive fumes of decay and witnessing the sun’s fiery dissolve is ne’er as well set to mind-altering muse as it is within the work of Tampere, Finland-based death metal mystics Ghastly, whom arrive upon their third full-length album with sight set far beyond death and carrion towards an alternate, fluidic consciousness achieved via these formidably lain ‘Mercurial Passages‘.

The origins of this Finnish death metal trio begin and ultimately hinge upon the songcraft of one Ian J. D’Waters who’d notably been the original drummer for celebrated Kangasala-borne progressive/doom metal band Garden of Worm throughout most of the 2000’s, and then some. Urged by another band member to take a few more passes at some death metal material in 2011 he’d formed Ghastly with vocalist er, Gassy Sam, and put out a demo tape (‘Death is Present‘) that same year. Those earliest works indicated classicist taste in extreme metal and a well-developed understanding of dynamic presentation, and skillful and professional standard impossible to hide behind ‘To Mega Therion’ riffs. Their debut full-length ‘Carrion of Time‘ (2015) is yet a sort of underappreciated jewel, roughened for the sake of old school death metal resonance yet capable of mystifying doomed crawls that’d more-or-less become signature oeuvre over time. The unique character of the project shone from that first release but it was their sophomore full-length, and first with 20 Buck Spin, ‘Death Velour‘ (2018) that folks noticed for its extravagant King Crimson-ian movement, horror crawls, and a sort of Morbus Chron-esque release from a Finndeath perspective. It is and album I find difficult to view objectively as it’d been my number one release for that year and continues to be one of my favorite death metal records of all time. We don’t have to overcomplicate the presentation of ‘Mercurial Passages’ here, it is essentially the next complete musical statement from an artist whose discography we can generally experience as a linear progression with a steep upward projection.

In brief summation before our greater delve I can simply restate the 2018 version of myself in accordance with my 2021 self in reference to Ghastly: As a complete package (beautiful art direction) and an experience (warmed tensile production, dynamic pacing) ‘Mercurial Passages’ is flawlessly achieved. As it turns out this sensation of perfection, flawless consideration, was likely the result of the artist more or less achieving ‘Death Velour’ as a solo actor until it came time for vocals and the final rendering process; From what I gather, this is similarly the case for this third album beyond the addition of Johnny Urnripper from Stench of Decay (and Circle‘s bizarro ‘Incarnation‘) for some additional vocal work. This is not only impressive as a factoid indicating painstaking work but also explains the determined progression felt between albums thus far wherein the third arrives feeling honed to directly facilitate the strengths of past compositions: Ghastly‘s characteristically doomed weave is more complex in patternation, their high speed riffs land with a more grotesque whirl, and the hypnosis of their psychedelia-entranced classic death metal aggression is impenetrably achieved. We awoke in a bloodsoaked graveyard, steeped away all flesh in a sea of corrosive horrors, and now wander within this ancient death-maze of arid wonder as a geist free of corporeal lament.

Two major statements come to mind in tandem as I reflect upon a full month spent listening to ‘Mercurial Passages’ a minimum of once per day: First, the dream-like ambiance and fluid motion of ‘Death Velour’ is sustained yet sharpened, a more agile set of movements now communicate physical intent rather than entertain atrophied awakenings any longer — This is a more violent and sinister beast of precision and intent that presents itself as well-honed, exacting skill for the blade(s) in hand. Second, there is no universal trade-off here in terms of entropic exchange. What I mean is that typically a loss of atmospheric weight would come with greater violence and precision but this is not the case, Ghastly still present their lofty and imaginative landscapes sans any reduction in the greater experience. “Sea of Light” is the breakthrough take influencing this statement, its sprawling double bass roll splitting the sky instead of the soil, its cross-hatched maze of riffs landing without confusion. There’ll be no suggestion of “more everything” from me for the sake of this work transporting us to another realm by the same auteur; Perhaps it is more detailed and arrives with a strengthened illustrative voice yet this work remains canonically enchanting, enriched with its own Lovecraftian Finndeath eeriness.

What lies around each corner concerns me, not only for the sake of immersion but for the steady aggression of these movements. There are still hints of this post-‘Sweven’ branch of atmospheric death metal here in terms of the aforementioned Crimsonian burl but we can now accuse Ghastly and Waters specifically of keeping these compositions lofty yet “mean” as death metal should be, violent and dramatic acts. There is no question that ‘Mercurial Passages’ is a death metal album yet the extension into progressive and post-rock influences on recent (fantastic) records from Bedsore and Sweven had the stiff-necked death ‘heads of the world sketched out by the idea that death metal might ever stretch into heady rock music. This is not a concern within this realm. The third single from the album, “Perdition“, is a shining example of each side of the coin revealed when flipped and blurred in motion as it increases in speed at the apex of the fall, becoming a whole-yet-gnarled image as they (beauty and violence) coalesce. I don’t want every death metal album to sound exactly like this just yet but ‘Mercurial Passages’ is an even more “perfect” portrayal of Ghastly than before, this song in particular presents a brilliant colonnade, a galleria but not a summarization of their finer traits and twists. By contrast the first single, “Parasites“, is the core and the auld heart of the band presenting what is essentially classic Finnish death metal in its echoing purity, of course an advanced version of it featuring abruptly blazing guitar work but a piece with enough rugged constitution and corrosive tenor that this inner ‘Privilege of Evil’ spirit is still vitally resonant.

As we work our way from the center of the album outward we find equally distributed atmospheric weight, where second single “Out of the Psychic Blue” is a less condensed array of characteristic riffcraft and transition-heavy movement, a sprawling prog-rock tumble in movement yet a reasonably technical death metal grind at heart. Much of the same dynamics portrayed within “Perdition” are even more pronounced within this piece and it does serve as a solid representation of the tone and twist-heavy spiritus of ‘Mercurial Passages’. It likewise continues the rousing of threatening skies presented by “Ouroboros” and threads them in preparation for (again) my favorite piece to start “Sea of Light”, a vital piece of connective tissue that thematically demands a whole listen with meaningful relation assigned to the running order. Not only does the opener portend things to come but it represents a vital introduction to the strong sound design that sophisticates this album. Engineered and mixed by Waters‘ increasingly skilled hand and mastered by Magnus Lindberg (Redmont Studio), ‘Mercurial Passages’ is gloriously aided by a focus on an elegantly layered and thunderous sound that parses its power in careful amounts between vocals, several guitar channels, and the impressive drum performance within. As the vocal arrangements and performances become more ambitious and separately tonal this balancing act appears all the more strong for its ease within a precarious number of technical variables. At high volumes the dynamic range of the album expands endlessly with increase and without any major distortion or dissolution, headphones or otherwise. I am still a huge fan of the slightly more raw coffin-thump of ‘Death Velour’ but the sound design and songcraft on this record bears its own equally valuable harmony of elements, a punch of its own that cannot be ignored.

‘Mercurial Passages’ is an elevation, a serious record in terms of general quality and detail. Every element makes brilliant sense from the wily threads of guitar gnarling to the fine artwork once again from Riikka Pesonen, yet this tragically perfect marble bust of an album won’t hold any shocking or too experimental moments for the avant-death folks looking to have all lines blurred and erased. The one piece that might stand out is “Dawnless Dreams” a deep cut piece that is nothing short of amazing for its early 90’s Swedish melodic death tremolo-picked rises a la early Dawn demo tapes (alternately, At the Gates.) This is a tiny detail and the song has far more interesting notes to have taken on its unique keyboard break which draws a line back to ‘Death Velour’ but, I found myself obsessed with these bolts of sinister energy at the peak of certain riffs (see: ~1:38 minutes into the song for the first instance). Of course I am distracting myself from the full glory of this longest piece on the album a bit but, I found myself stunned into repeating the song several times just for the rhythm guitar work, kicks into hollow-blasted hits, and sharp tempo changes. The movement of the song was addictive in a way that some of the more detailed pieces on the album aren’t so, I appreciated this feeling of expansion and movement as the album reached towards its endpoint where “Mirror Horizon” has this stark, Gorement-esque deathly doomed finality to its riffing that felt more brutal with each listen. At the very least my ranting here could suggest the album goes places, moves swiftly and packs a broad variety of moods and movements into its whole.

If you’re keeping tally of pros and cons here you’ll find the negatives aren’t even rendering at this point, at least not in my mind. This is either because I’ve been so consistently enamored with this album for a full month, or, because I’ve been a fan for several years. Though I always seem to find an objective angle where a fault appears in well, most everything, it does not occur to me in view of ‘Mercurial Passages’ — There is no flaw or even the slightest irk to chalk up here, this is a masterfully achieved record and once again I’ve no need to glean cerebral depth from its innards to appreciate what the music (the art) within conveys in terms of painterly perspective in application of my own personal resonances. This finest-yet Ghastly experience is a world I must live within whenever I get the chance and I’ve not been able to convince my brain otherwise for even a second beyond the first listen, much less the hundredth. A highest recommendation.

Highest recommendation. (100/100)

Rating: 10 out of 10.
TITLE:Mercurial Passages
LABEL(S):20 Buck Spin
RELEASE DATE:May 28th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Death Metal

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