By Luke Henley
In its origins, death metal was a genre that always came with a disclaimer that you knew what you were getting into with any particular release. The often-mentioned releases from bands like Morbid Angel, Entombed, Suffocation set a template that has largely been unchanged for years. While traditional death metal still has its loyal disciples, there has been a recent influx of bands whose sounds are so labyrinthine and mutated that it’s only after you read that they identify as death metal that you can tilt your head, squint, and feel this is an applicable description. Abyssal is one of these newer bands whose sound requires several backslashes and is most often referred to as black/death/doom, but while sub-genres are useful as shorthand to categorize a band’s sound, Novit enum Dominus qui sunt eius makes it clear that this is not music easily described or consumed.
It would be very easy to compare Abyssal’s music to that of Portal, who are also clearly students of Immolation. Portal’s music has itself become a sort of benchmark for a new sub-genre of metal and metal fans in the know will vaguely understand what to expect when hearing a band sounds “like Portal”. Similar to the classification of black/death/doom, however, this conversational shortcut in recommending this album becomes inappropriately vague with further inspection. Abyssal does have qualities similar to some contemporary artists, specifically a penchant for huge, queasy guitar work, arrangements that leave you unsure of your footing, and vocals that sound like the dying exhale of a living cave system. These are elements that are increasingly familiar, but Abyssal marries them to a rhythmic structure that blends what is often a difficult, atmospheric sound to a more driving and accessible core. If this style of music could be described as having “hooks”, Abyssal would be the prime evidence in making that case.
The track ‘As Paupers Safeguard Magnates’ is the best showcase of the band’s strengths, chiefly its emphasis on developing a structural anchor in its rhythm section that allows for the layers of guitars to create their own ordered chaos. The music is surprisingly accessible in this way, and Novit enum Dominus qui sunt eius is actually enjoyable to listen to even as it challenges and provides obstacles to the listener. The guitar offers a lot melodically, not simply serving as a noisy sheen atop the rest of the music. On album closer, ‘The Last King’ there are flourishes that reference everything from death metal chug to Dissection’s arpeggiated black metal to ecstatic passages resembling ascending, flurried classical movements. This all links into a bizarre, but not out of place, jazz interlude, which readies the listener for a crushing, hypnotic finale.
The inner-workings of these songs are revealed as a hissing, steaming factory machine at the center of a clatter that at first sounds like total entropy but can be examined closely to reveal the immaculate placement of each moving part. There are moments of pure emotional bottoming-out, whose cog teeth join perfectly with moments of harmony and triumph all at a pace that is at once manic and stately. Abyssal have an almost alchemical property to them, dabbling in mystical recipes that result in some of the more well-formed iterations of a class of music that is willfully amorphous and difficult to describe. It is most useful to describe it as something to which you must listen.