Monday, April 20, 2015

Gruesome - Savage Land (2015)

Imitation is the sincerest form of...splattery? For going on decades now, one wouldn't accuse Gruesome of being Matt Harvey's first rodeo for wearing his influences on his sleeve. Exhumed is very often (and justly) compared to the formative, important years of England's Carcass as they emerged from their vegan grinding roots to the hybrid of melodic thrash, death and heavy metal that they originally left us off, and later reformed on. Dekapitator sounds like a literal who's who of the Big Three German thrash influences. So, not a surprise that Savage Land was touted openly as a paean to the first couple of Death albums, in particular Leprosy, which just happens to be the favorite of yours truly. In fact, this debut album goes so far as to bring Ed Repka's artwork into the fold, in what I can only assume is a measure to further the effort's authenticity towards its source material. Had Chuck and Combat requested a cannibal savage theme in place of a grisly leper, this might have damn well been an iconic image we clung to for 25 years, and there are small cues in the band logo, the title font, and more prominently in the fact that this was openly dedicated to the late Schuldiner himself.

I don't have much of a personal issue with such hero worship, provided that it is manufactured with the transparency that Harvey and his partners in gore have created this. Savage Land is, of course, quite incapable of scoring accolades based on its nuance or originality. The furthest away it roams is to embellish itself with a few licks more directly redolent of late 80s Pestilence and Obituary than Death itself, but for the majority of the 35-36 minute playtime, it's more or less an emulation of the fabled Floridian's sophomore album, with a few liberties taken in the vocals and drums, as well as the obvious difference in production values that the gulf of a quarter century will provide. Now, if you were to ask me, I would tell you that my adoration of Leprosy itself is such that I would not rightly mind a few aesthetic doppelgangers, provided that they could infuse the inspiration with a few hints of their own personality, or at least write riffing progressions that captured my imagination in much the same way Chuck was, back when he was crafting those evil, menacing rhythm guitars and sinister vocals, not yet concerned with the 'brainier', less interesting polish of his later 90s output which I found to be hit or miss, often processed and pandered to near impotence. It's a pretty huge leap, after all, from 'this is the sound of corpses-rising-from-the-crypt awesome' to 'my nerdy Dream Theater friends in Music Theory 101 really appreciate this in between whiffs of their own bodily emissions'.

Naturally, then, I appreciate that Matt Harvey, Gus Rios, Robin Mazen and Daniel Gonzalez are on the same page with me. A formidable lineup, all of whom have flirted with American death metal in its numerous strains and forms, attempting the Herculean task of slobbing the knob of one of the very greatest death metal albums in human history. But sometimes, when faced with a sword swinging assassin, you find yourself unequipped with a pistol, and that the target is well out of range or your bullwhip, and Savage Land ends up a pseudo-sequel of divisive proportions; an admittedly fleshy production which doesn't seem to exhibit anything deeper than the skin of its precursor. No, this is not as shitty as Curse of the Crystal Skull, not by a long shot. On the surface, the tremolo picked riffs represent the clever crudeness of the original, and they're nothing quite lazy about them, but the way the notes are splayed out into patterns here is simply not evocative of anything more than the mere structural characteristics they are supposed to represent. It's not incompetent, nor is it really 'weak', but apart from a few of the lead patterns in cuts like "Trapped in Hell", I too rarely experienced any measure of genuine excitement seems like a series of motions, a checklist of traits, like an Elvis impersonator who has the dress down, and the voice, but not the moves, or the ability to make his crowd get up and shake, rattle or roll.

I could see an argument for the more organic, responsive, flexible drums here to be labeled an improvement over Bill Andrews' performance on Leprosy, but I'd also point out that they are both products of their times. Which is fine, they work well by contemporary context and standards. But then, not all proponents for extremity in 1988 were Hoglan or Lombardo. I, for one, appreciated the straightforward approach to the beats back then, since I was just so absorbed with the true star of the show: Chuck's rhythm guitars and pestilent, boiling growls. The latter are handled well enough, but somewhat inconsequentially for the year 2015. Harvey does a deeper, more guttural  rendition of his forebear, but the most it ever does is 'justice' to the original, with no further aspiration. We won't be chomping over the bit about Matt's growls in conversations, simply missing how we felt the first time we heard Scream Bloody Gore. The bass lines are fairly low-key and nondescript, which is pretty much a reflection of the old 80s Death, but I feel as if some good grooves and unique lines here would have actually helped embolden the experience, made it more compelling on the whole.

I've already mentioned that the guitars here were pretty close in build to the originals, just not as catchy. There are a few more clinical patterns in tunes like "Demonized" that do successfully resurrect the nostalgia they're after, but these are few and far between, and the majority of the meatier riffs are just straight into one ear and out the other, like human flesh entering and exiting the intestinal tracts of the brutes on the album cover. Sadly, no Wendigo mythology here, nothing is really absorbed into me, I do not gain the record's abilities. Its powers. I can't recount a single riff after 10-15 minutes of listening to the disc, whereas the album's inspiration still reigns in my conscience as it did when I was 14 years old, drooling over the Leprosy cassette my little sister picked up for me at the mall. 'Ew! Gross!' She said, not risking exposure to the thing without its shrink wrap. That's a long time ago, folks, and a lot to live up to, and perhaps it was absurd of me to think it ever could, but I at least maintained a little hope that there would be handful of tunes that lasted me a few months. Apart from some of the bridge/lead sequences, though, the album seems like somewhat of a letdown, if not a total dud. Where Exhumed really captures that hellish, slaughterhouse exhibition of its grinding influences, and earns a life of its own, the Gruesome debut just seems like a secondhand museum lecture. Not a bad one, mind you, but not one I'm likely to pay to experience again.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

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