PANDEMIC OUTBREAK – Skulls Beneath the Cross (2021)REVIEW

To answer your first question, no, these guys did not form in response to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, but in fact formed as a duo under this name in Gdansk circa late 2014 as a speed/thrash metal band, soon to include three other members that primarily featured on their first EP ‘Rise of the Damned‘ (2016). Apart from some interesting provenance that suggests these guys are big fans of both classic thrash metal and underground 80’s heavy metal in general that first EP isn’t particularly relevant to the band as they are today. After some significant line-up changes a second EP (‘Collecting the Trophies‘, 2018) would hone in on a true death/thrash metal sound, a brutal and uncompromising style that hadn’t yet found its own voice or anything particularly clever beyond a ruthless attack. As far as I’ve gathered the band split up in 2019, they focused on a side project Frightful (who are pretty solid, too) and reformed Pandemic Outbreak not too long after, reprising the previous line-up with a different bassist. If I were to check the timeline, the press materials and read between the lines they’d been working on this record for nearly two years and perhaps not initially considering the first bits of songwriting as a Pandemic Outbreak release, but it must’ve ended up going the way of death/thrash and they already had a cool band name.

The story here isn’t that complicated, two guys (drummer Szymon Wójcik & bassist, guitarist, vocalist Menzel) record an amazing death/thrash metal record in an abandoned building, aiming to realize their vision of Floridian death metal purity and the very compatible focus of the earliest, most riff-shocked Polish extreme metal scenes. This means we aren’t getting a naïve record from Pandemic Outbreak‘s core but a true thrash ’til death development which finds them blending these separate but equal ideals into a professional, cleanly rendered death/thrash metal album with some moderate technical ambition. Balancing the rawness of 80’s death metal, the precision of late 80’s thrash metal, and the suffocating clobber of classic mid-90’s polish death metal might sound like an impossibility (or banal, depending on your perspective) but in fact it kills in the hands of Pandemic Outbreak, who’ve managed something that is both distinctly traditional (as in, defined by its rhythms exclusively) but their own personal, brutal warping of it within ‘Skulls Beneath the Cross’.

What does it mean to most readers when asked to consider the connection between Florida death metal and the rise of death metal in Poland? It isn’t as simple as looking to the first pure death metal releases in Poland, though they did typically come with heavy influence from Deicide and Morbid Angel (Vader, Hate, Betrayer, Mortify, Ahret Dev etc.) because if we wheel towards the less specific realm of death/thrash metal preceding (or aligned with) them our answers are a bit different since early Vader, Magnus, Dragon and my favorite example: Betrayer‘s ‘Necronomical Exmortis’ demo tape have potential to open doors toward deepening nuance beyond death metal and brutal thrash (a la late 80’s Turbo) where we find groups that’d probably heard ‘Altars of Madness’ not long after ‘Beneath the Remains’ and pivoted in various relative directions a la Pestilence (see: Mortal Slaughter) a la Atheist (see: Violent Dirge) alongside a few bands whom were always more faithfully aligned to thrash metal scenes such as Quo Vadis. The Polish death/thrash tradition is rich with interest especially if you are a fan of lo-fi death metal tapes and have some serious love for the ‘Pleasure to Kill’ effect in the deep underground proto-death metal scenes of the late 80’s but, why is all of this important? I’d hate to see someone pick this record up and compare it to early Vader and simply move on, there is too much brilliant shit out there to just stumble past it. If you like the vibe of this record, man do I have a list of wild menace for you to discover.

We digress for the sake of references of tone, pacing and the necessary tension shared between several generations of death metal and the thrash metal that influenced (or simply preceded) that history. This lands ‘Skulls Upon the Cross’ in a sort of 1992-1994 post-Iron Curtain death/thrash metal zone which is clearly underground but still has a touch of refined technical thrash in its bass guitar work, plenty of mid-paced double-bass drum jogs and what I’d consider a touch of Protector‘s early 90’s death/thrash side in what is an otherwise fast and polished riff album. “In the Name of God” manages to convey many of these elements as a pivotal piece on the record: Teutonic thrash riffs, their own sort of semi-melodic death metal rhythms, the odd orchestral hits of ‘Altars of Madness’ all while grinding it into their own paste. Sure, it isn’t as memorable as “Human Trophy” which follows but the greater sensibility that Pandemic Outbreak brings to this album is more mature than expected considering their implied reference: The ‘old school’ dynamic largely crests upon creating pockets of memorable guitar interest without losing the plot within a constant stream of attack. In this sense these songs are definitely easier to set a bit closer to ‘The Ultimate Incantation’-era Vader but providing far more variation as we examine this record track-by-track. Of course “Along the Stream” is the first impression and kind of slaps my argument in the face a bit with its tremolo-flung melodies and angular upward progressions but, trust me they’re going to go places with this sound far beyond the auld Olsztyn way.

“Personification of Evil” presents a steady handed groove, strong lead guitar finesse full of fiddly runs and quick divebombs and you’d think ‘Skulls Beneath the Cross’ intends to thrash throughout but even this sub-three minute song manages a valuable melodic break, even if it only seems to appear for the sake of flair. We are greeted with pure brutality and shredding by the band in the best tradition, kicking a record off with some serious skill and energy and there isn’t a deep cut here beyond enjoying the ride to start. “Rise of the Damned” certainly gives us our speed metal influenced early Morbid Angel hit to some degree but I’d felt like it was “Infected Identity” where Pandemic Outbreak truly start to bust out into this record with a piece that has every element in check: Groove, Possessed-style runs, dual vocal choruses, and the same hammering of the kit you can expect for the entirety of the full listen. Around the ~3:51 the backing track shifts underneath the solo, revealing a brief but thrillingly sophisticated rhythmic moment (thanks to he fine bass guitar work here) which I’d found myself looking forward to with each full listen. While I’ll stop by track-by-track run here my favorite piece, the aforementioned “…In the Name of God” ends up being a major peak (think: ‘Unbound’-era Merciless) they’d been building up to and this was where I was beyond impressed. It shows their taste and their sound isn’t limited to rigid death/thrash metal ideals and a love for bands like Dissection (which we hear more in Frightful) can and have been incorporated here to great effect. The gist of it is that one should approach ‘Skulls Beneath the Cross’ expecting the very best ideas from these young folks and I’ve been impressed.

Riffs? Plenty. Production? Sharp, balanced, brutal, drums have their own late 80’s flavor. Artwork? Brutal stuff from Necrodevourer, good use of color to pull the eye from hellish corporeal torment to mutant messiah-shredding horror. Lasting value? Right, that is where my recommendation comes in. I think if you sat through the whole “Florida death impetus, Polish death advent” paragraph you’re probably going to like this record. The balance of kinetic riffing and suffocating n’ groovin’ drum work will be a skull fracturing nightmare for anyone who’d already perked at the death/thrash metal tag. A moderately high recommendation to the masses otherwise.

Moderately high recommendation. (75/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Skulls Beneath the Cross
LABEL(S):Awakening Records
RELEASE DATE:June 26th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp
GENRE(S):Death/Thrash Metal

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