ASTRAL TOMB – Soulgazer (2022)REVIEW

With a bit of research and triangulation between their various impressions upon the Denver, Colorado underground it’d seem the current line-up of avant-progressive death metal trio Astral Tomb developed in 2019 as members shared between Blood Trench and Ring Nebula shuffled in and out of configuration as a group of high school-aged folks (whom are largely still in their late teens) quickly figured their way through death metal and grindcore influenced ideas ’til landing upon a compelling sci-fi influenced aesthetic. I say aesthetic because their musical ideas were yet entirely rough even on their debut demo (‘Subterranean Forms‘, 2019) where loose-jawed meter and seemingly improvised runs bent into some semblance of songcraft and atmosphere without meeting death metal’s high standards. Much as death metal’s underground “dad” types will pat a band on the back despite the mess available, these were not good recordings and I’d go as far as saying Astral Tomb‘s promotional demo (‘Degradation of Human Consciousness‘, 2021) was a sort of “so bad it is kinda transformative” situation where there was perhaps something bold in their releasing a largely dissonant rehearsal jam as an introduction to their newer, moshable and cleaned-up sound. The big question on my mind in approach of this debut full-length is whether or not the trio have made something viable of ‘Soulgazer‘ or simply Frankenstein’d together a load of trends into mush-assed nonsense.

From the fairly near-normative paradigm shifts of Pan.Thy.Monium and Phlebotomized to the progressive reaches of Thormenthor, Traumatic Voyage and Caducity death metal has always had its exaggerative leadership in various points of underground mundanity, but these were typically either for the sake of atmospheric play or occasionally featured a band interested in toying with the most normative essences of the craft, such as meter or musical language. As we push towards the late 90’s and early 2000’s bands like Wicked Innocence and Psypheria their ilk had pushed a lot of those sort of ideas into the normal range of ‘progressive’ death metal weirdo ideals and a lot of the boldest ideas going forward would come from emergent brutal death metal trendiness finding its extremes (see: Dripping) and I suppose the point I’m making here is that for a ‘progressive’ death metal band to actually arrive as such (bucking traditional forms) often involves minds which are muddled with the ever-growing array of possibilities available at their fingertips when picking up an instrument — The ‘norm’ of the last decade being dissonant/discordance. Despite their often discordant arrangement you’ll not likely get a hint of Portal‘s technique from these young folks, whom present ‘Soulgazer‘ as a sort of product of their limited yet overall very inclusive worldview which includes elements of goregrind, brutal slamming death metal, and technical death metal. No, that doesn’t mean they sound like Inoculation (some shared sense of erratic phrasing and influences, maybe) and fuck no, these guys do -not- sound like Blood Incantation but those are the intended peers they seek with a far more ‘out there’ approach to the intended death metal form.

The question that’d arisen in mind after each listen of ‘Soulgazer‘ was the same: “Is this music serious enough to bother with?” and I greatly appreciated this sensation of distrust as I familiarized myself with the full listen, an experience unafraid of extended, ranting run-on songs without form (“Transcendental Visions”) and too-long sci-fi interludes (“Be Here Now…”) which appreciably stretches the musical notions of nowadays floundering, uncreative death metal bro-trending into various realms. The best riffs here take on a sort of raw edged and sludge metal-sized rock riffing movement by way of brutal death modulated blast n’ growl modus. The most musical moments here are arisen out of thin air, usually by way of two combative guitar tracks fretting their speaking-in-tongues jargon at an ADHD pace. Instead of joining together in regular sections of transition and performative riff Astral Tomb‘s guitarists scratch away at irrationally set leads, most of which are the sort of drivel any well-practiced guitarist can manage without actually knowing what a scale is. In a live setting, this would be a sort of thrilling adventure through chaos yet on album it reeks of wankery to start and will likely not hold up to most of death metal fandom’s standards of repeatable, pleasure listening.

There is nothing coy about the smoke-and-mirrors available to the implication of death metal being expulsed here, as these fellowes are selling a trip and a bit (well, a long ranting prosaic flood) of feeling rather than a structured too-serious experience. My major criticism of this modus beyond appreciating its naïve avant-garde value is that a thousand fantastic ideas pass by without due highlight or appreciation. “Inertia (Crashing Through the Doorways of Eternity)” charges through about twenty potent seedlings of ideas before fizzling out without any one major statement made and I’m not sure the listening experience translates as well as the act of performance of these ranting vignettes of surreal, but not all that technical movement.

The full listen of ‘Soulgazer‘ is challenging for the sake of Astral Tomb refusing to make eye contact with the world, hair over the eyes and sunken into their work without a fuck given in service to the performative art of heavy metal and, yes, as a fan of experimental music, psychedelic rock and noise rock/post-hardcore etc. I completely appreciate the broken, uncaring crunch of it all. My only hope is that it is intentionally busted and blurred, rather than just incapable of a more professionally arranged desired result. “Traversing the Wandering Star”, the most brutal Wicked Innocence-esque piece here, has me wondering if this sort of directness was the core intent of the album and their longer-formed pieces simply found too many shiny objects of interest along their course, though they are found sticking to their guns on “Ascending a Pillar of Light” to close the album.

Despite a few harsh points made along the way I’d felt welcomed and well-curated on this trek through Astral Tomb‘s world-opening. As an experience it’d been a relative joy to feel the weight of ‘Soulgazer‘ spiraling in and out of control throughout, a sort of visionary notion presented before they are fully able to convey the intended dynamic in a readable, directive way. It nonetheless provides a wild, unexpected sensation throughout and grants the listener a crooked ribbon-cutting unto a world worth building out and upon. A moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation. (75/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Blood Harvest Records
RELEASE DATE:March 25th, 2022

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