Monday, December 31, 2012

Soulless - In Death's Grip (2012)

There comes a certain frustration as a music critic when you run across such a gem as Ohio's Soulless and realize that they've gone on rather criminally unsung through their career. Here we've got a fantastic death thrash act which excels at songwriting, an all too rare commodity in the States, sitting out there in the Midwest, at a time when both genres are booming in a resurgence. I must admit some befuddlement at why their carnal opus Forever Defiant (2007) wasn't the biggest thing in a long time, or at least far more deserving of a first class seat on the hype train than the vast majority of metalcore-based acts who adopted this fusion of genres upon first hearing Slaughter of the Soul, Reign in Blood and your choice of an In Flames or Dark Tranquillity classic in the 90s.

Five years pass, and one might have assumed Soulless stuck the proverbial fork in their dreams, until they started to tease new material in 2012, which inevitably led to their fourth full-length In Death's Grip. Upon first listen, I was surprised at how little had changed in their sound, but that's really the only possible gaff I could hurl at this disc, because otherwise, it's a deliriously energetic, entertaining 11 rounds of abuse (past the intro) that remind me exactly what I loved about its constituent influences in the first place. The obvious comparison point here would be Carcass in the 1992-1994 era, when they were evolving their grind roots into a more dynamic display of thrash-based, palm-mute heavy riff structures; but where a band like Cali's Exhumed mutated that inspiration into a more gorified, hostile excess, Soulless dial it back to incorporate some obvious 80s North American thrash influences (Slayer, Razor, etc), and then temper that hybrid with some Swedish elements like the harmonic tremolo riffs so beloved in At the Gates. The result creates a blustering, biting, forward motion that never ceases in its attempt to engage the listener's neck muscles and nervous system.

Though I've definitely no aversion to a more atmospheric-based extremity, metal for me growing up was always about the architecture of guitar riffs first and foremost. Whether it was "Immigrant Song", "The Ripper", "Symptom of the Universe" or "Maze of Torment", the momentum of the axes provided the central vehicle for my amusement. This is a formula Soulless also prescribe to, and thus it's no shock that Wayne Richards and Jim Corrick take point with a plethora of pummeling, driving rhythms that focus heavily on mid-paced hair whipping tempos, but occasionally break into slower grooves. Melodies are interspersed both through the leads and the muscular rhythm licks. The tone is appropriately meaty; perhaps not so overwhelming as the first time I heard Heartwork, but it definitely captures the imagination when they break out into the clinical muted riff progressions redolent of late 80s Destruction and Pestilence. The leads are a mixed bag here, with some ("Bleed You Dry", "Sinner Without a Soul") striking more memorable scenes than others, but all told there's no death of craftsmanship or intent.

Not to belittle the rest of the band's contributions, here, which are all beyond competent. Jim Lippuci's wretched snarl distinguishes itself from a Jeff Walker or Tomas Lindberg by splicing an added sheen of impish curdling and bleeding fragility; and like a Carcass or Deicide, the rasps are often complemented with a guttural undercurrent to punch through your ear drums as he rifles through tales of murder and civilization's decline. Dave Johnson's bass is great, veering off just often enough from the guitar rhythms to enforce their structure but establish its own personality, not too heavily drowned in distortion as is often the case with such bands, thick and fluid where it stands alone (intro to "In Darkness Consumed"). Chris Dora's battery is also delivered at a fulfilling volume. The kicks aren't too deep, but rather they snap along to the chugging of the guitars, and while this is not a band that often accelerates to a blinding speed or a blast, he keeps the hammering enthusiastic, flexible, and bright to rival the lavish mischief of the band's surgical melodic sensibilities.

As I hinted earlier, complaints here are quite minimal. The hidden radio broadcast clip outro of the guys dicking around doesn't really add much to the proceedings, but it's not as if it will interrupt the flow of the disc unless you've got it on repeat. There's also the fact that the composition level here doesn't move forward or even sideways in a meaningful way from Forever Defiant. It's steadfastly loyal to that sound, and by extension there are a dozen or so riffs which will seem slightly redundant to earlier material. Don't get me wrong: there are at least 9-10 songs here that range from good to killer ("Serpent Reaper" being a good example of the latter), but all in all there were a few from the prior album which I found marginally more memorable. On the other hand, the production here seems more well-rounded and resonant than Forever Defiant, which was a fraction cleaner and more sterile. The cover of Destructor's "Take Command" is a nice addition, helping celebrate another local legend while making the song their own in translation.

Ultimately, though, any and all quips are eclipsed in the face of another great effort from a band which deserves much more than the obscurity they've experienced. This is basically a billiards match between
Heartwork and Slaughter of the Soul, with Violent Restitution tending bar, Malleus Maleficarum off in the corner smoking and Slaughtercult trying to flirt up all their girlfriends before Reign in Blood jabs him in the testicles with a pool cue. What's not to like?

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (the mighty guide the blind)

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