This second and most ambitious chapter in the slow-unveiling sentience of southeastern French avant-progressive death troupe Epitaphe arrives with their knack for contrasting coloration of forms still set to heavy-blooming light, a blinding wax-soothed abrasion atop the most inflamed run-on strikes of their darkest scene-and-setting to date. ‘II’ undoubtedly deserves its progressive death/doom tag in partial purview though the trio’s travels find them measuring uneven distance from the already wide swath of prior-set expectations here. With some brilliantly considered skill for transformative presentation these Claix-borne folks fashion a moderately challenging yet inspirationally listenable avant-garde blurring upon the edges of extreme black/death metal’s modern abjection, molding both smoother and sharper edges ’til the result is reflective of their own personage.

Though I have already detailed my perception(s) of the band’s general history in review of their first demo tape (‘Demo MMXVII‘, 2018) and with some extra insight in review of their Best of the Year worthy debut full-length Iback in 2019 the greater stairway of their discography in mind now becomes a panoramic splattering of mood and exploratory modus with this second album, which I will suggest up front is perhaps their ‘great work’ to date for its experiential value and with prior steps taken in mind. For the uninitiated consider Epitaphe a voluminous, sickening birth from a great storming cloud of chaotic death metal beginnings with that first demo very well in tune with the avant-garde extremist influence of groups like Portal with some appreciate for Incantation-esque atmospheric damage and a certain performative freedom with respect for the barriers which groups like Esoteric removed from death-doom permutations in the 90’s. This is perhaps the long-form way of suggesting their work was immediately nearby those of The Ruins of Beverast and with some of the experimental guile of groups like Chaos Echœs. With ‘I’ they’d realized a fevered, dream-like maxim of avant-death barrage which was tuned for the cruel ear of the underground, the exciting twist being an assertive experimental death/doom motion mastered. This is vital context for our approach of ‘II’, or at least mine since I’d felt it’d been prime example of a band bold enough to present a true set of extremes on a debut in an age where ‘branding’, iterative juicing of ideas and lowest common denominator trending are often the major concern for young artists on this level.

At face value two major judgements can be doled and refuted. The first is that ‘II’ rearranges the greater reach of ‘I’ out of its somewhat modular vision and finds a few points of expansion, creating expositional fluidity which wasn’t as pronounced before. This comes with emphasis on additionally personalized and deeper woven breaks of character and form, such as ethereal wave-esque moments on “Melancholia” and atmospheric black metal tirade on “Celestial” as these moments now take center stage with greater prominence for the sake of differentiation. The second, and perhaps more difficult to argue, notion to bear is the clear sense that this is a more professional release in terms of its greater sound design/production result. Though I still have some great affection for the rawness of ‘I’ in the hands of James Leonard/Plastic Lobster Studios, whom engineered and mixed this record as well, it seems the additional master from Greg Chandler/Priory Recording Studios and the more ambulatory capability of Epitaphe have all worked swimmingly together for a result that gushes a bit more readily of its varietal reach and easier motion. All hands find a surreal point of sync within and the result feels exactly right, as big and as golden as it should be.

A distinct state of confusional arousal spikes within their tectonic mulling — ‘II’ wastes little time in its whipping away at brush strokes bold enough that some listeners may experience temporary lapse of time and place when set within its immersive three-paneled approach of ~19 minute songs. Though modern-musical suggestions of subtlety and progressive meander have greatly added to this sensation, from my point of view it takes little more than a few quick turns between atmospheric sopping and death metallic aggression to break this immersion in an effective way; Where Epitaphe excel beyond the colder duality of experience of past releases lies within extending both the thread before and after these transitional moments in creation of larger waves, or, movements which immerse. In plain English? They’ve made prose instead of poetry here with their arrangements, the ranting nature of these movements is most clearly pushed to an affecting extreme within the expanse of the later-third gushing of “Insignificant”. This also allows us to segue into the earlier suggestion of some atmospheric black metal, or, perhaps post-black metallic voicing manifesting with their own organische flair here, allowing for greater cinematic phrasing as the album progresses.

A sort of “nature without nurture” resonance or ideological motif arguably develops here, a theme which bleeds throughout all of their releases in vague strand. The grand earthen entrance of “Sycomore” into “Celestial” is more obviously stated in this regard with its hymnal vocal refrains and ever-stirring progressive guitar whorl serving double duty in providing some clearer avenue into extreme doom metal reaches and black metal phrasing that’d not been fully realized on ‘I’. Beautiful as these moments are they carry a vexing undercurrent, a struggle which features as wild layers of texture for the more inquisitive listener concerned with lasting value. “Melancholia” is perhaps equally on par with the album-making station of “Celestial” yet it is a completely different piece of an album length thread. It’d be easy to pick a few favorite moments from each of the three major pieces herein yet all of them are vital to making the experience whole, cliché as that might appear the dimension of experience is too vast to enjoy when focusing on just one or two spectacular bursts of event. That said, no, I couldn’t argue with the head-above-the-clouds moment arisen ~7:57 minutes into said song (“Melancholia”), wherein this notion of modern progressive music informing Epitaphe‘s trip becomes most palpable. They’ve not only made this moment a major feature of the piece but woven it into the actual composition rather than simply placing a sort of “sticker” of mood-altering juxtaposition as a centerpiece. It is one thing to land upon this moment at all but a whole other thing to find a meaningful, not-so forced way out of it which leads into prog-black/death tumult soon after. This is not only one of the more redeeming moments on the album but a strong piece of evidence for the -work- put into ‘II’ as a whole.

Beautiful yet still riff-heavy, taxingly experiential yet rife with a hundred redolent pockets of relief and, well, the only limitation I’d set upon Epitaphe‘s second record is that it won’t present a literal enough sensation of “doom” to most listeners. In fact the doom felt here is almost entirely stated within the wandering conductor’s hand in conveyance of existential dread rather than dispirited collapse. The severity of sub-genre tropes won’t purposefully factor into such an undertaking and, much like ‘Tide Turns Eternal‘ last year, we’ve gotten an entirely personal shade of the ailing self and some manner of resolve within ‘II’. Their own pathway through the wilds of creation, its meaning derived from natural reactions to chaotic sentience, is redeeming at every turn and full of moments that lend well to rediscovery in the process of several listens. Beyond my own blathering musings, consider ‘II’ yet another whole-brained avant-garde death metal record from this band’s considerable well of inspiration. There’ll be no better place to introduce yourself to Epitaphe here on this challenging yet never gaudily inaccessible (nor too accessible) second record but, I do recommend seeking out its necessary companion ‘I’. A highest possible recommendation is warranted, this is without question one of the most essential extreme metal records of 2022.

Highest recommendation. (100/100)

Rating: 10 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Aesthetic Death,
Gurgling Gore
RELEASE DATE:April 11th, 2022

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