As I have pointed out many times, probably to the point of mild annoyance to my fellow Moshville Times colleagues, Obituary enjoy somewhat messianic status in my eyes with 1990’s seminal Cause of Death record surely staking a rightful claim to be the best death metal album of all time. Hell, I even have the cover art tattooed on my arm (but that’s another story for another time).
Obituary really need little introduction to fans of extreme metal and are one of the few death metal bands who can confidently claim legendary status having enjoyed more than thirty years at the helm of their own Floridian juggernaut. The band’s debut record Slowly We Rot emerged from the festering swamps of the band’s heartland in 1989, laying waste to an unsuspecting audience in the process and offering an unparalleled uniqueness which many have tried but few have been able to emulate. Who can forget when they first heard John Tardy’s disarmingly prehistoric and truly bowel wrenching vocals. Both their debut and 1990’s classic follow up Cause of Death, hold pride of place in most folks’ all time lists.
Since the more experimental and atmospheric sound on their second offering (much of which must be attributed to the influence of legendary guitarist James Murphy), the band have followed a more basic, stripped back path which, while never losing any of its unique heaviness and groove, has lead to some accusing the band of lacking invention, particularly on the last couple of releases. While I have some sympathy for this view, you cannot argue with the band’s uncompromising nature which has left a back catalogue which many can only dream of.
And so, where would this – their tenth studio offering – sit amongst its ancestors? Well from the opening strains of first track “Brave” the listener is left in no doubt this is Obituary. The twin down-tuned guitar onslaught, Donald Tardy’s mesmeric drumming and of course the unique vocal delivery of his brother John, are like welcome old friends. The track provides a decent opening to proceedings, very much following in the same vein as recent releases.
Second song “Sentence Day”, which was pre-released, takes things a step further, showcasing some excellent lead guitar work and twin-guitar harmonies. However, despite their proficiency, I couldn’t help but feel that these two tracks were simply following the formula from the last couple of albums and struggle to really engage the listener.
Thankfully, there is much more to come from this record and things get more interesting from track three, the very enjoyable “Lesson In Vengeance” which harks back to the band’s Celtic Frost worshiping heyday and has an almost bluesy groove to it. “End It Now” follows and is the standout track on the record for me. It kicks off at an altogether more frenetic pace with Donald Tardy’s artillery drum kicks and John’s guttural onslaught breaking down into a classic Obituary riff which drives the song and the listener into delirium, great stuff!
Things progress well from there with “Kneel Before Me” and “It Lives” both offering more craft and trademark guitar layering with the latter track delivering a classic Obituary breakdown midway through. Track eight “Turned To Stone” was another pre-released effort and its catchy main riff carries the song well although it perhaps lingers too long before picking up tempo nicely and then fading out.
Penultimate, and straightforwardly titled “Straight To Hell” is the other real stand out on the record with a wonderful pure Celtic Frost opening (no-one does Tom G Warrior like John Tardy) and a fantastic brooding middle section, fading in John’s awesome growls to brilliantly eerie effect. This tracks comes as close to that unique Cause of Death atmosphere as I have heard the band do for a long while. The album closes with “Ten Thousand Ways to Die” which was included on the band’s 2016 single/live album release which although is an enjoyable enough track I feel it is best suited to the live environment and doesn’t add enough to the record, certainly to finish it.
Recorded at the band’s own studio in Tampa, the production is polished and delivers their sound well. There is a clarity to Donald’s drum sound which further highlights what an accomplished sticks-man he is and John’s vocals sound disarmingly good after all these years. Kenny Andrews has clearly grown into his role as lead guitarist and lets loose more often than on previous records, complimenting the crunching heaviness of Trevor Peres well. The only minor criticism is that at times the leads seem to overpower some of the tracks somewhat and are a tad too far forward in the mix for my liking… but this is only a minor point.
The quandary I have with reviewing a new Obituary record is that you cannot help but compare it to their prodigious back catalogue. If this was a standalone record from most other death metal proponents it would demand a score of ten. There are some more pedestrian moments on this record but they are more than overshadowed by the better parts. There is more craft and guile on show here than on the previous three releases which will leave purists happy. It’s a really good album on its own merits and while never quite reaching the heights of the untouchable Cause of Death, perhaps we just need to appreciate that we were spoiled in yonder days of yore. It deserves a place in any self-respecting fan’s collection.
Obituary are a band who understand what they are about and are clearly having fun doing what they love. The world is a far better place for it.
Obituary is out 17 March 2017 on Relapse Records