Ontological Mysterium by HorrendousRelease date: August 18, 2023
Label: Season of Mist
Left to my own devices, I shy away from more technical and progressive bands. You’re more likely to hear Necrot, Primitive Man, or Godflesh booming from my car than Opeth. I have nothing against progressive and technical forms of metal per se; they just don’t connect with my core. As someone who takes solace in the abrasive, pounding, and dissonant, it was fun getting asked to review the most recent release by progressive death metal masters Horrendous. While I loved their 2009 demo, Sweet Blasphemies, and found their first full-length release, The Chills (2012), to be sufficiently heavy to keep my attention, as they moved more squarely into the realm of progressive metal, my interest in the band waned. Ecdysis (2014), Anareta (2015), and Idol (2018) were highly praised by many for their complexity, technical mastery, creativity, and stellar production, but they just didn’t keep me coming back for multiple listens. Then, however, I caught Horrendous at Northwest Terror Fest in Seattle this summer, and their performance was simply incredible. I was looking forward to hearing the album in its entirety.
When it comes to “progressive” music of any style (from early Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson to Dream Theater), a central question for me is this: does the band balance technical mastery (which can sometimes devolve into technical wankery for some bands) with emotion, power, and feeling? Whereas the first two Horrendous releases tended to connect with my penchant for head-banging brutality, as the band experimented with more progressive and technical song structures and writing, they would sometimes wander off course, leaving me to wonder if the technical displays and complex song structures were somehow getting in the way of, rather than furthering, a song’s power. I found it difficult to connect with these albums. This was particularly the case with songs such as ‘Sum of All Failures’ or ‘Orbolus’ from their last two releases. I understood these were incredible songs from highly praised albums, but I never really listened to them after a few initial exposures. My interest would simply fade off, whereas an album like Blood Incantation’s Hidden History of the Human Race kept pulling me back for repeated listens. The question for me was whether or not Horrendous’ latest release could balance its technical prowess and creative desires against enough raw power to be engaging both now and down the road.
The album’s opener, ‘The Blaze’, tries to answer the question from the outset. This is a surprisingly straightforward opener for this band, one rooted around a central riff. There are almost no frills here, just raw power building upon itself without distraction, leading seamlessly into the album’s second track, ‘Chrysopoeia (The Archaeology of Dawn)’. Starting with an almost Coroner-like riff, the song demonstrates the musical journey of Horrendous in a single track, seamlessly blending ferocity, complexity, and wonderful solo work. Around the halfway mark, just when you think the song might be over, the listener is treated to an additional series of unexpected turns and stylistic juxtapositions. This is particularly the case with the use of multiple vocal techniques, including the use of several clean vocal sections. This song takes you on a journey.
From there, the album presents several tightly focused tracks, including ‘Neon Leviathan’ and ‘Preterition Hymn’, which strike a nice balance between straight-forward death/thrash metal and the progressive inclinations of the band. The vocal experimentation of the band continues to shine through on the second of these songs, where harmonies are employed to wonderful effect in a manner that caught this listener completely (and pleasantly) off guard. Two masterful tracks that should please any fan of this band are ‘Cult of Shaad’oah’ and the album’s title track. The tracks are both epic displays of Horrendous at the top of its game, clearly rooted in the sounds of the past yet producing something unique and fresh. While certainly skillful, the instrumental ‘Aurora Neoterica’ creates a slight lull in the album’s pacing and may be the one time when the band seems more interested in experimentation for its own sake.
Once again, Horrendous has released an impressive work of progressive death metal with Ontological Mysterium. The band has taken the time between releases to hone their craft, writing tighter and more focused songs while still pushing themselves to explore new areas. Of particular note on this album is their continued experimentation with vocals, which is superb and to be applauded. The four members of the band refuse to regurgitate “old-school” riffs and song structures; they won’t devolve into an “anemic dinosaur, drunk on nostalgia” (a line from the album’s closer ‘The Death Knell Ringeth’). Horrendous would prefer to continue a journey of self-growth and the realisation of potential over a mere reverence for the past. The latest release proves the virtue and value of such an endeavour, even to a knuckle-dragger like myself! Only time will tell if the album stands up to repeated listens, but I have a distinct feeling this one just might. Give it a listen.