Deepening uncertainty in trying times, debilitating loss of faculties and draining civility among those vexed by misinformation technology all factor into the restless yet beauteous progressive melodic death metal statement launched but this ten years and two LPs past version of Netherlands-based septet Phlebotomized. An obscure name who are yet well-remembered for their insight and outrageous ambition in the early 90’s today we find a glossiest, most mature yet still past-reflective state on album number four. ‘Clouds of Confusion‘ continues on with some of the modern melodic metal inspiration of their prior points of return while balancing in more of their classic aggression, meeting up with an old reputation without having to compromise their vision of the here and now.
Though they were not among the earliest death-thrashers to form the Netherlands specific death metal sound and scene Phlebotomized arrived circa 1989 as a step beyond their grindcore/death metal beginnings presenting a brilliant fusion dance pulled from Floridian death metal aggression, Scandinavian death metal’s romanticism (see: early Therion), and the sombre wane of early Paradise Lost, approaching a level of meld with each major trait suggested in a performative streak which remains one of the most viably chaotic-yet-romanticist moments of early 90’s tape-level brilliancy. Most of this can be summed within a close listen to their debut demo ‘Devoted to God‘ (1992). Per the standards of the time the pre-album sound of the band constituted a holistic stylistic reach rather than a shocking avant-garde feat, though it was singularly adventurous thanks to prominent and inventive use of keyboards and violin. The root of the band’s signature formed therein as death metal that was aggressive at a ratio which was just brutal enough to stay at odds with a truly beautiful result, a lasting characteristic of their composition beyond that point.
Their sound has generally been built on this spark of early avant-garde/progressive death metal which could still hang with the artsy gothic gloom of the British death/doom of the era, particularly as their well loved debut full-length (‘Immense Intense Suspense‘, 1994) arrived. This early station of the band always felt comparable to that of Septic Flesh‘s beginnings and perhaps because each group were pulling in ideas as old as 1990-1991 as they’d presented at the higher end of the underground ambition circa 1994; If an ‘old school’ death metal fan picks up a Phlebotomized record today it is likely based on expectations built within that 1989-1994 sojourn which’d gone underrated for quite a long time ’til Dutch death metal and classic-era oddities became more desirable in hindsight, or, to new generations. Why didn’t many follow them into ‘Skycontact‘ (1997)? They’d lost their cookies in the disco a bit, cranked up the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis influences, extended the use of clean vocals considerably, and tossed in a bit of thrashing death n’ roll which wasn’t as successful as moves made by Amorphis and Alchemist around that time. Even if you’ve chosen to accept that second album’s freak flag a-flyin’ today the band returned back in 2013 and began writing a record that’d been marketed as picking up the pieces of what they’d done from formation ’til 1994 rather than returning to the approach of ‘Skycontact‘. How that suggestion actually panned out wasn’t entirely as expected.
Several years later the result was the oddly-timed release of their third full-length album ‘Deformation of Humanity‘ as an early digital release in late December of 2018 and physical in early 2019. It had one of my least favorite album covers in recent memory and the only returning member was main songwriter/guitarist Tom Palms who’d brought a very clear influence from melodic death metal into Phlebotomized‘s sound alongside a decidedly orchestral accompaniment on the keyboards. Oddly enough the Septicflesh comparison still held up in some sense at least, in fact you won’t find me criticizing performances or production values too heavily then or now since they all have arrived world class from that point. It was yet the sort of album you had to let be, let it go places on its own and soak in the radiation rather than pick away at its flexing sinew in the moment, not outrageously far from the spirit of the first full-length all things considered but also nothing like it in terms of death metal style. For the follow-up mLP (‘Pain, Resistance, Suffering‘, 2021) the band included a third guitarist for a full septet line-up and leaned into this anthemic melodeath aspect with shorter and easier to digest pieces that’d been honed down to their core melodic traits or ideas. This follow-up tempers some of the bombastic excess of the previous two releases without losing the melodic death metal inspired tilt of their newer material, this time bringing in a bit more of the Nocturnus-esque application of keyboards as you’ll find on lead single/music video “Destined to be Killed“.
Again the uncomfortable space between the volatile brutality of 90’s death metal and the beauteous spectacle of melodic metal that’d emerged nearby was less often celebrated for its combination with sense than it was for the “beauty and the beast” juxtaposition of many ex-death gone gothic metal bands in the mid-to-late 90’s but back in 1994 Phlebotomized had perhaps been ahead of their time in realizing the glue and the medium to hold these things together were surrealistic tones and more elaborate prog-rock influenced song structures. Any alternative one could think up nearby likely wasn’t death metal but produced a similar feeling of underground malaise, uneasiness between violent and tragedian feel. Here on ‘Clouds of Confusion‘ the polished touch upon the bands work and performances remains so glossy, so beautifully balanced in such a way that the ugliness of death metal cannot crack through its veneer to the point that even at the when thier hardest punches are thrown it never quite lands as deep a cut as that of something like Nocturnus A.D., though I believe this record should appeal to folks interested in something closer to the early 90’s bound feeling of ‘Immense Intense Suspense‘ with an emphasis on modern progressive/melodic death metal production standards in glorious effect, moreso than their last two releases. “Pillar of Fire” and a few other key pieces here should generate some of the right feeling at the very least.
As was the case with each of their past releases a bit of patience and trust goes a long way with Phlebotomized. As often as they are content to hang with a certain groove or droning moment the greater shape of each song ends up well considered per the average (reasonable) attention span in retrospect and this time around they’ve found a balance within song structures that often read a bit closer to the simple rub of early death metal abstractions with a mind still thrilled by early death/doom metal, the best example of this being “A Unity Your Messiah Pre Claimed” and its dodge between Death riffs and lighter twisting of light melodic doom metal forms. There is quite a progression of events that leads up to that point but I believe that is where the record finds its most cumulative effect in one of the longer pieces on the record. Getting to that point means passing through a few songs which took quite a few listens to warm up to, such as the melodeath trot that develops between the motif shared by “Bury My Heart” and “Alternate Universe” as well as the extension of those songs in “Bury My Heart Reprise”, all of which which generally makes one’s enjoyment of the early moments of the album key in terms of sticking with the full listen. As more of fan of their first record and demo I think “Death Will Hunt You Down” ends up being the strongest piece overall beyond “Pillar of Fire” with a slight Amorphis-esque bent to its approach. Once I’d warmed up to that song the rest of the album generally synched up in terms of the full listen, though the result does ultimately feel like its wires are a bit crossed in terms of the overall experience.
Though I’d found ‘Clouds of Confusion‘ certainly sounded believable as Phlebotomized naturally would three decades later their focus on quite pleasant and polished melodic death metal with a deep gnarl down the center doesn’t deliver upon 90’s nostalgia enough to pull in the ‘old school’ obsessed crowd and doesn’t stretch into wholly modern abstraction, either. The unease felt between the classic death metal side of their classic-era interest and the modern melodic metal feeling of the album otherwise ends up landing appropriately enough within their discography and, again, I’d say moreso than the previous two releases. Nonetheless the overall experience doesn’t have that estranged underground death metal feeling to a degree that’d line up with my own taste and instead merely feels unique within the commercial melodic metal space. A moderately high recommendation.
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