VACUOUS – Dreams of Dysphoria (2022)REVIEW

A slithering siphon of acid-fried rot, a parasitic worm piercing and tunneling in undulating press sews its body through soil and flesh in ecstatic, frictionless feast of sopping meat-mud. Slippery with the festering plethora of their habitat and fattening upon the ooze they’d create London-based death metal quintet Vacuous present the loosened tensile strength of atmospheric death metal in shades of psychedelic wander and sludged jog, writhing within the hazy precision of post-modern ‘old school’ revisionism on their debut full-length. Cast from a realm of constant mental unrest ‘Dreams of Dysphoria‘ captures this young crew in a well-synchronized state of miasmic churn, a shared mindset which is both enlightened by the possibilities of darkest niche yet dying to continue their exploration of distraught mood and meandering horror elsewhere. Though we can expect neither mastery nor any notably direct imitation of classic forms herein per a certain generational divide, a high enough standard is yet upheld within their ever-shifting sands which sets the swaying sensation of this experience apart.

Formed in early 2020 between folks who’d been active in various sub-genre pockets in the London area and set into motion for the sake of taking advantage of the malleable, generally forgiving palette of simplistic “primitive” death metal Vacuous began as a trio, three folks who’d soon have to resort to trading self-recordings over the internet as the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated it. The initial fruits of their labors were appropriate in demonstration of a basic idea, simple yet somewhat rhythmically loose ‘old school’ influenced death metal which we find on their first tape (‘Demo I‘, 2020) which I’d not even given the time of day beyond a single listen at the time since it was nothing special, a vanilla barker with a couple riffs scattered across a couple short songs. The band took that outline and colored it in for their debut EP (‘Katabasis‘, 2020) seven months later, having figured out their pacing a bit more and tweaked the vocal patternation a bit (sounds a bit like Kyle from Obscene on that one, kinda), some of which remains improvised or in reaction to the song. An actual production had helped quite a bit, their new logo was rad, the guitarist had turned out some solid riffs after all and I think folks had good reason to hype over Vacuous at that point. The line-up expanded, they played shows, their stuff sold well and of course a full-length was quickly in the cards. Were they ready for it?

Well, that’ll depend on what you expect from a band that’d formed two years ago and quickly made their way onto two of the monster class death metal labels of our era. Truth is that we’re getting today’s standard in ‘old school’ death metal, for better or worse, from Vacuous and a sound that folks will appreciate at face value for its moderate pacing, thoughtful yet not overwrought rhythm guitar work, and generally intense presentation. You won’t get too many notes on classic death metal tenets here and not for lack of ’em manifesting within ‘Dreams of Dysphoria‘ but for the sake of this band clearly being a product of death metal today, folks who are interested in what bands are doing now, as these do not appear to be folks who have been obsessed with early 90’s death metal for decades so much as general fans of underground metal who’ve pooled their ideas into this style. For the sake of giving the reader a general idea, we could look to the most characteristic traits of Incantation for doomed pacing and vocal register, the atmosphere warping dread of bands like Ataraxy and the closer-to-home variations we find in groups like Cruciamentum but there are of course plenty more analogues to those traits within the general glut of nowadays ‘old school’ adjacent death metal ideals. If you need a band’s lifeforce reduced and reviled to sustain your ghoulish sense of self, consider this record a remedy to “caverncore” in the sense that these grooves are directive rather than meandering and less of that major motion is buried beneath layers of sonic froth, in fact Wayne Adams‘ render of this record is surprisingly crisp for how much it plays into the melty, psychedelic weave of Vacuous‘ now updated rhythmic knack.

It’d be safe to say that past work from this group shouldn’t set your expectations for this full-length debut, the work they’ve done for ‘Dreams of Dysphoria‘ is a couple of years removed from their most nascent beginnings and now deploys the talents of a quintet alongside well-proven producers and engineers. More importantly we’ve gotten a considered point of view from Vacuous, albeit a somewhat vague one, which now leans beyond plainly functional death metal rumblings into embattled death/doom, atmospheric torsion, and a bit of rhythmic wanderlust which keeps things interesting within the albums tightly framed ~33 minute runtime. It isn’t necessarily a riff album so much as one designed around fluidity of progression, movements which bleed together into amorphous dynamism which may or may not feature a readable phrase when all is said and done, the result is a record which impresses in the moment yet doesn’t completely leave a mark upon the mind without close study, or, a strong attention span. Side B‘s “Stigmata Scourge” is the most prime example of Vacuous‘ keen ability to string together run-on rhythm guitar ideas into wriggling, dread inducing gallop and present a sensical merger of many influences into their riffcraft. The main point to make is that they’ve packed a lot into this half hour record and to the point that their wandering ear for rhythmic moods nearly threatens too much of an adventure to sustain readability.

As an opener for a death metal album “Devotion” is surprisingly sluggish, braced by mid-paced grooves and oozing atmospheric scrawls into the distance, a feat which only salvages itself beyond its first couple of minutes for the sake of the twists and turns taken within the second half of the song. The vibe is uneasy, confident but muddied by an over-active linkage of ideas. This is less of an issue as we press on through more deliberate, groove focused pieces and only because the listener should quickly come to expect some impressive reveal for their patience. Apart from some rousing cowbell hits to kick off one piece we are not yet treated to any truly memorable songcraft on the first half of ‘Dreams of Dysphoria‘ so much as we are graced by its plumbing-deep dive into a new rhythmic standard for the project. “Paranoia Rites” finds an appropriate balance between surreal yet simple motif and garage death kicked abrasion, this is where I’d felt I was finally comfortably seated within a death metal album with some performative merit and the subtleties of rhythm would begin to fester in mind a bit more as the slower, doomed or spaced-out sections hit. The late-middle third of the album (“Stigmata Scourge”, “Paranoia Rites”) more-or-less becomes the major highlight of the full listen for the sake of that specific pair being entirely succinct and a bit late in hitting stride. This is the sweetest pocket of their craft and the bulk of the pieces to convince here on their debut. My preference leans towards Side B as a whole, anyhow, and the closer/title track definitely seals the deal in the right way.

The dark psychedelic and doomed moldering quality of Vacuous is perhaps the major revelation to be found within their debut, their odd touch upon death metal rhythms and slowly spiraling guitar arrangements make for an entertaining if not slightly too subtle feature as the full listen rolls on past at a steaming trot. The voluminous atmospheric hang of ‘Dreams of Dysphoria‘ is a pleasure to sweat within, even if it doesn’t end up punishing or challenging the ear with more than pleasurably sorceled swirling dread. Yet this is far more personage than is average these days and these upstanding folks have been quick to learn, to adapt and find their own voice within the parameters they’ve set for themselves. I’d still like to get hit with a soul-erasing riff, something unforgettable which cements their haunt in mind more clearly but taken as is this is yet a well-formed and wholly enjoyable debut full-length. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (80/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
TITLE:Dreams of Dysphoria
LABEL(S):Me Saco Un Ojo,
Dark Descent Records,
RELEASE DATE:October 14th, 2022

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