First off, Umbra Vitae’s Shadow of Life is a good record. I don’t know if it’s death metal in any kind of pure sense, but I also don’t give a shit about genre purity. It definitely has your typical death metal touchstones: your chuggadas, your skrees, and your schweedles, but the kind specific to death metal and not the chuggadas, screes, and schweedles that are OBVIOUSLY thrash. Or hardcore. Or metalcore. Or melodic death metal. Or symphonic progressive metal. Or djent. Or grind. Or speed metal. Or certain brands of sludge. Or etc. etc.
Second, and probably most importantly: this isn’t “Converge made death metal.” I’ve seen that flying around in comments and forum posts and not only is it reducing a band down to one member’s other work, it’s also a major stretch. Tonally, structurally, and aesthetically it’s very different. Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou served only as producer/engineer here and didn’t give this the signature “GodCity/Converge” sound. Further, outside of Jacob Bannon the band is two members of the Red Chord, a former member of Hatebreed, and the current Uncle Acid/former Job For a Cowboy drummer. In fact, I think the drummer’s resume alone makes a great case for people, even people in metal, shockingly being capable of doing more than one thing.
Heads up, I’m going track-by-track here because the anticipation around it seems to warrant it. I’m not sure how hyped up this record is for the national scene, but in New England where I’m from it’s kind of the biggest deal among 30-something bearded men in black shirts suffering from mild clinical depression and non-mild beer consumption.
The album opens with a short and sour instrumental, melodic and awash in reverb with a hint of chorus on the guitar. The tone on the whole record is really interesting. There’s almost a suggestion of Joy Division on the guitars, like we’re making a death metal martini and gothy new wave is the vermouth.
That blending of weirdness isn’t super surprising or out of place, given how varied guitarist
Mike “Gunface” McKenzie’s work is on other projects (not just the Red Chord, he pops up in unexpected places).
After the brief intro we’re right into blastbeats and what could almost pass for black metal. Bannon’s vocal barks can tend in that direction by default, in a middle-high register. Instead of pig-grunts or tough-but-definitely-a-human vocals he gives a sound like he’s trying to break a tonsil stone loose. He’s got a distinct delivery and we’ve all heard him before, so I won’t linger on it.
The song transitions to a plodding hardcore section and by the end we’re in spacey prog territory. This is the general trajectory of most of the record. There’s a lot of variation but it’s still very consistent.
The fourth track, “Mantra of Madness,” opens with the kind of “I’m in danger”-meme buildup you normally expect to wait two minutes for. It’s the feeling of four china hits without actually being four china hits. The song is engineered for pit casualties. When live shows are possible again, I hope they open with this just to clear out the caveman liabilities in the crowd up front so us wimps can, like, hang. I’m kind of surprised this is the single. It’s good and fun but it doesn’t feel as representative of the album as a few of the other tracks do.
“Fear Is A Fossil” is up next, starting out dumb in a really fun way with the vocals lining up in sync with a mean fisting of a riff. We get the blastybois for a bit and then it’s into this airy riff that sounds like if NIN’s “The Perfect Drug” overdosed on protein powder.
(At this point, the record is half over and I’m barely a quarter through my beer. If nothing else, the record is masterful in its economy. Local bands, pay attention: you can do more good in 26 minutes than you ever will by playing 40 minutes and OH MY GOD COIL YOUR CABLES OFF STAGE WHAT THE FUUUUUUU-)
The second half kicks off with “Polluted Paradise” and out of all the songs on the record this one hates you the most. It starts at a sprint, like if Usain Bolt was made entirely out of knives. The palm mutes give way to pinch harmonics, but instead of a typical metal squeal they sound like the theremin from a 60’s horror movie score.
“Intimate Inferno” is a full minute of relentless headfuckery, speed-picked arpeggios, and blast beats before opening up into some really airy hooks. It reminds me of Arcturus, specifically riffs on “Quintessence,” a record I think is either about outer space or being on a boat or being on a boat in space. That Arcturus comparison may seem a little out of left field, but the riff comes back a second time with an added harmony part that makes me feel pretty validated.
Next up is “Return to Zero” which is probably the most similar to Converge out of any of the tracks. It’s easily the most structurally bonkers (technical term), and around the 1-minute mark the blast beats give way to a palm mute riff I can only think of as “buttery” for some reason. This song isn’t my favorite on the record but that riff might be.
“Blood Blossom” is a bunch of ignant caveman shit up front. The palm mute riff is a big bruisyboi and it gives way to that airy open sound again. The interplay between those two vibes is present throughout, but it’s probably most at play on this track.
Album closer “Shadow of Life” is a plodding, melodic, and icy sendoff. The guitar sets the slow feeling of the track and while the double kick works overtime there’s no sense of this being a fast one. I imagine this is how it would feel if a woolly mammoth could sneak up on you and you knew it was about to happen but you just couldn’t see the fucker.
All told, I don’t know that it breaks the mold or does anything wildly experimental, but I also don’t know that Umbra Vitae are even trying to do that. It’s cool to see what these guys came up with together, and it’s double cool that it doesn’t sound like their other projects.
Standout track for me is “Intimate Inferno.” If Shadow of Life were a video game, “Intimate Inferno” would be the tutorial level setting you up for everything you need to know to play without giving away all the ways in which it will vary.
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Shadow of Life is out on Deathwish Inc. and available from the Deathwish store and on bandcamp. Umbra Vitae will maybe tour some day in the future but most likely half the band is stuck in Massachusetts near the members of Cave In and Converge who aren’t in Mutoid Man. No idea where that drummer lives.