Portland’s Ossuarium have been making a bit of a stir within the underground community as of late, as their debut is set to release on 20 Buck Spin on the first of the month. Avid readers will know that I’m a big fan of the label’s 2018 roster, so let’s see how this 2019 kick off stacks up against the competition.
I’m telling you, this 20 Buck Spin run has been very impressive; its starting to become a cult of personality, but I’m doing my best to be objective. While the Washington-based label has dabbled within the realm of progressive and even retro electronic music within the past, their bread and butter lies within the fetid realm of good ol’ meaty death metal. From Tomb Mold to Torture Rack, whenever raw distortion and guttural screaming are paired with 20 Buck’s Midas touch, apparently nothing can go wrong.
There’s this established style that seems to envelop the releases in question. All of the death metal releases on the label’s recent roster feature this cartoon-like artwork that all seems so similar in style. I’m thinking of Tomb Mold’s Manor of Infinite Forms, Extremity’s Coffin Birth, and now Ossuarium’s Living Tomb, which all boast interesting artwork that hones in on one specific colour. The aspiring maniacal clairvoyant hidden somewhere deep within my constructive fabrics wants to say that this yearlong run of 20 Buck Spin releases will be honoured in infamy in ten or so years as a cherished collection of prime releases, but only time will tell. Enough rambling, on to Living Tomb.
Ossuarium are tagged as a death/doom band, but I believe that this is somewhat misleading within the cacophony that is the world of metal subgenre tags. When I think of death/doom, my mind immediately jumps to stuff like Hooded Menace, Innumerable Forms, and Mortuous. These bands all incorporate these long, lunging song patterns that tend to work via emphasis put on a note’s dissonant fading rather than its initial strum.
However, Ossuarium seem to incorporate a prominent old-school death metal influence that other contemporary releases lack. Perhaps using Innumerable Forms and Mortuous as comparisons isn’t ideal as they both have some old-school flair, but I stress that Living Tomb sounds a whole heck of a lot more ‘80s than their contemporaries (for better or for worse, but you’d be a fool to knock ‘80s death metal).
Living Tomb manifests as a controlled orgy of varying tempo, shifting soundscapes, and eerie sonic incorporation. This is by all means not your one-trick pony. While the aforementioned old-school death metal flair serves as a concrete base for the album’s musical explorations, it is responsible for a mere tenth of the album’s congruency.
One of the major points of success here lies behind the band’s ability to meld meaty riffs with atmospheric sonic moments. “Blaze of Bodies,” the opening track, leads a virgin listener to believe that they might be listening to a straight death metal album, but they will be happily mistaken within the coming minutes. I love that opening minute or so of this track; that opening collection of riffs are such an earworm when put together. However, following this seemingly standard brutality, a harmonious section is introduced with full-fledged soft guitar involvement and a halting of the pounding drums. The song follows this pattern, switching between maniacal death metal and eerie guitar strumming, ultimately setting a great pace for the album.
Living Tomb is actually constructed in similar fashion to this opening number. Perhaps calling “Blaze of Bodies” a microcosm of the album’s sonic endeavour wouldn’t be all that much of a misplaced comment. Living Tomb operates in schizo fashion as a whole, slicing back and forth between a paced pounding and eerie mood-setting portions. Proving my point, the following track, “Vomiting Black Death,” opens with a three-minute tone-setter, showing Ossuarium’s more delicate side. However, the tempo doesn’t stick around too long, as the song speeds up incrementally, hitting you with faster and faster potions until its ultimate conclusion.
On that note, I really do love this album’s innate balance. While we discussed the polarizing beauty between its hard and soft sections, Living Tomb succeeds on an objective level due to its reluctance to stick both legs in one camp. A factor I frequently discuss lies behind the overabundance of heaviness that often plagues albums aimed for ultimate brutality. Human ears have an uncanny ability to adjust and subsequently tune out repetitive sounds that it deems unnoteworthy after a period of time. That fan blowing cool air across your room while you’re dozing off? You don’t hear it after a minute or so because its irrelevant from a survival point of view.
The same thing goes for the pounding of the drums, the incessant blast beats, and furious guitar picking. Part of the reason why music has been such a popular art form for hundreds of thousands of years, and will continue to be as long as humanity exists, lies behind its ability to balance enjoyable melodies with a tinge of unpredictability. Music needs to be repetitive so us listeners have something to latch on to, but must also have variance to keep us millennials interested within a world of distractions. Now, my preferred melodies may be those created by massive caveman riffs and psychopathic screaming, but its all the same really.
I promise this rant is going somewhere. Applying the above discussion to Living Tomb, we can observe a masterful balance between the insane and the calming. This album really isn’t that fast tempo-wise, but when that faster portion hits you in “Vomiting Black Death,” you better hold on to your socks.
Another example of this balance is the one-two punch of “Corrosive Hallucinations” and “Writhing in Emptiness.” The former is more of a tone-setter track as it incorporates a slew of melodic elements that ultimately serve as a good mid-album interlude. Following this slower number, “Writhing in Emptiness” follows, complete with raw death metal pounding, and even a juicy breakdown. That second song hits so much harder than it would otherwise, simply because of its strategic positioning behind one of the record’s slower jams.
The album does a good job of winding down as well, which I would expect from these tempo masters. In terms of criticism, its hard to say. This is the group’s debut, and aside from their demo and split with Draghkar, there’s not much to compare this full-length with. One qualm I can observe is that the opening number seems somewhat held up by the rest of the album. “Blaze of Bodies” is a decent track, and alongside the collection of songs that is Living Tomb it stands strong, but for its opening nature I think it could have felt a little more complete as a standalone song. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the whole amounting to more than the sum of its parts, but the rest of the included tracks work as separate songs on their own, so I find it odd that the opening number doesn’t. I don’t know, perhaps the moody nature of this music requires an opening cushion to set the pace, but I stand beside my comment.
I thoroughly enjoyed this album, and I generally really don’t like death/doom. As I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, Ossuarium’s blend of death and doom metal leans more towards the old-school death metal arena, so that’s probably why I’m taking more to this album than I did to Mortuous’ widely-appraised contemporary debut from last year. The atmosphere is just stellar on Living Tomb, and coupled with the band’s taste for screaming brutality, you’ve got yourself a winning combo. There’s also room for improvement, which makes me eager to hear future outputs.