ATRÆ BILIS – Apexapien (2021)REVIEW

Great travail is created for all men, and an heavy yoke on the sons of Adam, from the day that they go out of their mother’s womb, unto that day they return to the mother of all things. Namely, their thoughts, and fear of their hearts, and their imagination of things they wait for, and the day of death. From him that sitteth in the glorious throne, to him that sitteth beneath in the earth and ashes; from him that is clothed in blue silk and weareth a crown, to him that is clothed in simple linen. Wrath, envy, trouble, and unquietness, and fear of death, and rigour, and strife, and such things come to both man and beast, but sevenfold to the ungodly.” All this befalls him in this life, and peradventure eternal misery in the life to come.” Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

Although the greater bulge of Canadian soil can safely count sublime tech-death as one of few major cultural exports very little of it has historically come from the melting pot of southern British Colombia and, I suppose the provinces west of Ontario for that matter. Thus we shouldn’t necessarily consider any certain ingrained fealty to the upturned nostrils of the much-heralded Québécois lineage in approach of Atræ Bilis, a tightly wound yet broad spectrum-lit technical death metal quartet whom feature native Canadian musicians as well as folks imported from Serbia and Australia. The important point to make as we vibe check the band, who’d formed after a chance record shop meeting in 2018, isn’t where they are from but rather what headspace they present together in sync — The simpatico these fellowes bring to the creative process undoubtedly informs the nails-heavy and dissonant yet smoothly pulsed resonance on offer throughout this, their debut full-length ‘Apexapien‘.

Defiance and psychic mayhem manifest as a natural reaction of the otherwise inherently benevolent in the face of tragic death within this conceptually-linked half hour, an even headier event than the “reincarnation within a corpse” motif of the quartet’s debut EP. The lyrics and concept once again feature an entheogen-laced point of view which vaguely seeks its curative state via exploration of ego-dissolution. That isn’t to say the album isn’t pure sickness and death at face value, suggesting the ingestion of the woes and the debilitating rot of the world through both microbial, medical, and esoteric spiritual imagery ultimately landing us within a plane of quintessence. What exactly the fuck am I rambling about? Let it be a suggestion that there are layers worth peeling while inspecting the mental innards of ‘Apexapien’ which could be best interpreted as illustrations of grief, dissent, and penance.

With only two examples of their craft in hand we can yet make a few key observations that bode well for both the present tense and the future selves of Atræ Bilis. All details are well considered and their taste level and standards are consistently high; By employing fine artists and expensive presentation each release manages to visually express these standards and set the listener up for a memorable, ‘world class’ event. Musical influences are broad and unhindered by temporal restrictions yet their craft is decidedly “modern” in the sense that (excepting ‘Obscura‘) this level of sound design, composition and technique didn’t exist in refined form ’til the early-to-mid 2000’s yet their craft is generative well beyond that point in terms of fluidic progressive death metal motion. Fans of brutal death, deathcore, and groove-focused death metal will hear these species echoed throughout ‘Apexapien’ as consolidated forms in service to machine-like statements but this is just one (albeit prominently used) shade of what they’d painted with on the prior release. In fact, if we can wheel back to ‘Divinihility‘ for a bit, I’d found the early songcraft from Atræ Bilis was almost too packed with ideas for my own taste, a pure example of enthusiasm from a group of fellowes who’d democratically cultivated a broad skill set. What impresses most from the first through the twentieth listen of ‘Apexapien’ is the deeper breaths they’ve allowed themselves throughout its relatively short, yet still highly detailed half, hour run.

Right, so what do they sound like? The second preview track from the album, “Bacterium Abloom“, gives us too many variables to consider, stymying anyone trying to pinpoint a known species from of their neatly-set kaleidoscopic clangor. I hear some of the tonal severity of 2010’s Revocation in the crunch and groove of the song overlain with the congested force of early 2000’s tech-death (sweep-picking included) as they proceed but this not an entirely representative moment. As it turns out this piece is set within the middle of the album where we begin to reach the tuneful apex of the full listen which invites a slight tonal shift into increasingly sentimental semi-melodic movements. This is far less severe a juxtaposition than say, ‘Of Fracture and Failure’-era Ulcerate and not quite as focused on a single rhythmic pocket as later Vile but this is the general ballpark which comes to mind without referencing groove metal influenced death metal bands or giving too much credit to any contemporary acts. To provide some direct contrast, the first preview song that’d introduced ‘Apexapien’ to the world, album opener “Lore Beyond Bone“, presents taut and percussive tech-death aggression from the moment it kicks off, emphasizing the hollowed-out and brutal register of vocalist Jordan Berglund while weaving through an opus-lite right out the gates. The key takeaway here is that the trip from this opening piece towards “Bacterium Abloom” is not too neatly balanced, this is an extreme metal album which presents itself chugging, violent and mean ’til a shift in tone begins to make sense halfway through the fever dream of it all.

With consideration for the first impression, the full listen of ‘Apexapien’ is most consistently impressive within the details of its steepest grooves and the sheer brutality of its performances. Prog-death accoutrement and semi-melodic and/or blackened infusions serve to elevate their alchemy, and are overall better developed here than they were on ‘Divinihility’, but they are not yet the star of the show; The flux of these elements into liquified, slightly more introspective spectacle is where Atræ Bilis eventually land their strongest blows. The brief and effective furor of pieces like “By the Heirophant’s Maw” on Side A held up quite well in the mix but it were the cerebrum-spanking stuff on Side B that’d sold the experience for my own taste; This is where the shift from crunching percussive brutal death grooves gives way to skull-flooding movement, a sensation I’d latched onto best after I’d watched guitarist David Stepanavicius and drummer Luka Govednik perform album closer “To Entomb The Ætherworld“. The song itself is buried deepest beyond the first impression Atræ Bilis and this somehow makes it all the more of a gem to work towards, plus hey anyone wearing a ‘Path of the Weakening’ or ‘Forensick’ shirt is worth taking seriously by default. On a more serious note, the transition and “breakdown” beyond the ~3:10 minute mark tears the core dynamic presented throughout this album open as if it were a ribcage — This is the sort of simple but effective moment, among a handful of others, which I’d found myself looking forward to more and more during the time I’d spent with ‘Apexapien’. It isn’t the most gratifying music in the moment-to-moment action but the thrill of technique and the arc of the full listen does ultimately generate value.

If I had one major criticism of the ‘Apexapien’ experience it’d be that for how brutal their attack is the full listen is entirely too buttoned up and precision-based. I’d go deaf cranking this record up and trying to find “mistakes” in these performances. Clean, satisfyingly bass guitar heavy, exquisitely mixed/mastered to an -incredible- standard there is little about the listening experience that should wrench the average ear. I get the impression that they’ve machined the majority of these pieces through tireless work and the only missing element for my own taste is a crack in the sanity of it all, something to fight off the cleanliness of the running order. Some vocal effects on “Open the Effigy” (and certain verses on “Hymn of the Flies”) present a hint of filth but I couldn’t help but want to hear something a bit more off-kilter, some sort of out of line ‘None So Vile’-esque mania could provide a satisfying fracture in the mix.

Stunning in approach, enticing in hindsight, and punishing on repeat the greater listening experience presented here may initially hinge on your interest in the last two decades of death metal’s brutal refinement. Atræ Bilis have nonetheless made an imposing argument for themselves, and earned a glowing recommendation from me, with the high-brained, old-souled and decidedly modern sangfroid of ‘Apexapien’. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (80/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
LABEL(S):20 Buck Spin
RELEASE DATE:October 8th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp
GENRE(S):Death Metal,
Technical Death Metal

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