Visitations From Enceledus by Cryptic Shift

Release date: May 5, 2020
Label: Blood Harvest

The low, blade-whirring ambience of a colossal weight landing, out of which alien words emerge in pixelcrushed insect-chitters…

I don’t know about you but, when I hear of a science-fictional concept album that begins with a twenty-sixminute-long death metal epic entitled ‘Moonbelt Immolator’—divided into six parts bearing subtitles like ‘Skirmish Above HD 10180 h’ and ‘Lair Of The Time-Ghouls’, each labelled with Roman numerals—I get pretty excited.

He steps outside, riff measuring each step, un-perturbed, emboldened by lifetimes of astral and interdimensional exploration, into the cold air of another Saturnian moon, another shade of rust-tarnished sky, another wine-blooded ocean, and yet another alien iceberg sea: a lunar Jökulsárlón.

That might sound like a difficult thing to pull off on your first album, but Cryptic Shift have been gigging, as well as dropping EPs and splits, since 2012 (originally under the impenetrable alias Crÿptic Shift), meaning that the dense and conceptual material on their debut is more than commensurate with their ambition. As this is a fairly long, mildly experimental, review article —I got carried away—I’ll frontload what you need to know: this is a superbly-written and endlessly-listenable debut, with a crisp and punchy production, from the weirdest, most innovative, tech-death-thrash band that the UK has to offer. If you’re still with me, then let’s dig a little deeper…

… a monolith rises tall from the ocean in an ab-natural geometry; our Starchild protagonist, astrally stretched amongst ancient, outré dimensions, signals ambiguously with a raised hand, palm turned in. All around him the cold soundscape hisses, incessantly whipping up pulsing vibrato-spirals and pinchswirls, secretions of sustortion, then fading into ambience…


I’m a sucker for a concept album, and for any music that conveys a sense of narrative, of taking you on a journey, but without travelling too far up its own black hole. Visitations From Enceladus is the best kind of concept album because it largely tells the story with the composition and arrangement of the music itself. Segueing from the carefully structured song riffs are atmospheric passages suggesting skewed AI language, using meandering cosmic chords, glitchy, spacey freakouts, and woozy low-droning, robotic voices from the void. Briefly. But, most importantly, it has all those jagged, nasty riffs you’d hope for, the flurries of lightning shredding and deranged virtuoso lead-breaks, the perfectly-placed drops and, well, shifts, designed both to turn heads and to prime the pit.

His heart beats loudly from within the suit, then fades…and the monolith tears itself slowly open in a huge boulder of a chord.

Death metal teams with the tentacled, extra-dimensional monsters of pulp science fiction and space opera, and the Weird Tales of Lovecraft, Clarke Ashton Smith, and Robert Howard. In particular, Shift mention gaming influences for their music, such as Bloodborne and Dark Souls. Well Visitations From Enceladus is certainly weird shit, but, being specific, not quite as weird as say recent releases by Blood Incantation or Tomb Mold, and certainly not as estranged as ultra-enigmatic entities such as Portal or Howls of Ebb. I called it technical, too, which is certainly the case, but without being complicated for the sake of it. It’s progressive without being proggy, without being Opeth. It’s not Cynic levels of genre-hopping frenzy, or some kind of quantum level, incomprehensible, equation-grade complexity. And this all definitely strengthens the release, a pitch-perfect balance of death and thrash sensibilities that make it amazingly listenable, and providing a coherence, that narrative structure again, which—as much as I love them—can be lacking in the really out-right, Gonzo bizarre stuff or the ultra-tech bands.

Echo, feedback, sustained distortion, build and dim—kickdrum, growl…something emerges from out of the coned obelisk…

Shift make no secret of their influences in interview. Death, Morbid Angel, and Gorguts have all been absorbed into the language of any death metal band, but Shift reference Vektor, Vovoid, and Atheist, too, and especially Nocturnus. The band’s press release adds some more obscure names to the list, such as DBC, The Chasm, Timeghoul, Sadus, and Martyr (Canada), who I must admit are mostly new to me. But as with the best releases in any genre, Visitations From Enceladus transcends any simple pigeon-holing as a death/trash album, though, with aspects of doom, jazz, noise all popping open across the vile skin of this extra-generic, hybridized, endlessly shifting, musical Nyarlethotep.

…and into the centre of the sound, slithers the fleshy, tentacle, a sucker-pucked limb, shorn of frets…

I can’t believe we’ve gone this far without mentioning the bass work of John Riley—fretless to be specific—which is easily the stand-out performance of the record (and that’s saying something). Also holding the low-end for the UK’s murkiest swamp-dwellers Slimelord, Riley brings new levels of technical ability and extreme innovation to the fretless, following the path forged by Steve DiGiorgio, Sean Malone, and Roger Patterson, yet seldom trodden. While Xander Bradley, our man on the mic, dishing out all the growls, gurgles, and throaty-thrash melodies, certainly provides a distinctive literal voice for the band, there’s something about Riley’s fretless tone— moaning and colourful—that adds a distinctive musical voice, also, co-existing in the center of the sound, but without stealing anyone’s thunder. There’s something which, for want of a better term, I’m calling “parpy’ (because I’m a technical kinda guy) right at the top of the notes which cuts through beautifully.

an aluminium tendril, nickel-coiled, chrome-plated, conducting rotten sound, stripped smooth, dulled yet coloured, coiling around a space-suited leg like the muscular heft of an ancient anaconda.

And the great thing is that all of this is wrapped up in a clean, crisp production package that reveals the intricacy of each player in all of its glory, while still packing a punch. The overall heaviness of the guitars leans towards thrash in this regard, being somewhat disinclined toward the bottom-heavy, thickness of modern death metal – certainly compared with Shift’s brutally bonkers single ‘Cosmic Dreams’ from 2016 (which actually begun the narrative of Visitations). Cryptic Shift want you to hear every carefully-placed note. Visitations From Enceladus is bloody heavy, don’t get me wrong, but that the heaviness comes from the tone and attack of the instruments and the timbre of the parts themselves, as well as the overall production.

An anachronistic voice, redolent of robotic impressions from ancient records, children’s toys…

So Visitations might be heavy as fuck, but it’s packed with melody. It is on ‘(Petrified In The) Hypogean Gaol’ that the cleaner, more melodically intricate side of Crypt Shift becomes most apparent, with shades of Mastodon circa. Crack the Skye at points, brought into sharp relief with frantic dissonance. One of my favourite parts of the album is the most quiet and the most melodic, occurring around six minutes into ‘The Arctic Chasm’. We’ve worked up a speed-freak, gonzo frenzy, only to fade into a magisterial break: tense, virtuoso, classic guitar lead with hints of Dimebag and Opeth, starlight bass harmonics and Jaco chords…which turns out to be the calm before the meteor storm.

Our hero’s journey culminates in the nasty, scrabbling execution of ‘Planetary Hypnosis’, harking back to some of the extraterrestrial excoriation of ‘Cosmic Dreams’, broken up with spiraling phaser breaks and reoccurring, overlapping, dual lead lines. By the time the album concludes, after around forty-seven minutes, swirling off into the stellar void, it’s clear that Visitations From Enceladus is essential listening for anyone interested in smart, complex, and rewarding extreme metal that tells a fine science-fictional adventure story. And I’m sure that Cryptic Shift will be telling us many more for years to come.

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