Last year, mysterious Spanish quartet Altarage made a strong case for their right to sit the cavernous death metal throne with their MMXV Demo. Does their debut album, Nihl, deliver on the promise of menacing power prophesied by those first two tracks, or do these would-be-usurpers fall short of glory?
There are many different paths a young band can take to kingship. Altarage have opted for the difficult road of building upon the formula first laid by the legendary heroes that once strode the land. In this case, Altarage have elected to adopt the stylings of Morbid Angel, specifically the downtuned, slow, pensive approach crafted by Azagthoth, Tucker, Rutan, and Sandoval on Gateways to Annihilation. It’s impossible to listen to the eight tracks on Nihl and not hear the genetic blueprint of Azagthoth’s precise, restrained-chaos approach to writing riffs. Even the track “Altars”, featured initially on the demo, sports a riff that sounds almost identical to the opening riff on Morbid Angel’s “Ageless Still I Am” (and incidentally Gojira‘s “Wolf Down the Earth”, though “Altars” is easily the most monstrous of the three tracks). There are other little traces of Morbid Angel found amid the rest of the flotsam and jetsam as well, from the howling vocal approach to the general rhythm to the mechanical precision of the drums. Altarage know their history, and they know a strong foundation when they see one.
That isn’t to say that the band is engaging in simple hero worship, though. There are a number of elegant little deviations and quirky intricacies to separate this band from their royal predecessors. The middle section of “Womborous” features heavy drum syncopation that dances the fine line between order and chaos. The pacing and riffs in “Baptism Nihl” are much more calibrated to a doom vibe and completely redirect the flow of the first three blast-heavy tracks before “Batherex” makes use of a tribal drumming pattern that would seem more at home in an ISIS track than an Antediluvian song. The twists and turns keep coming until a fade-in growl at the beginning of “Cultus” disarms your expectations and leaves you completely vulnerable at the end of the album.
The glue holding all of those unique elements together is stellar musicianship. It’s extremely obvious that this young band takes their craft very seriously. As I mentioned before, the Azaghtothian rhythmic precision is evident in every single track. Even as the drums deftly careen from breakneck blasts to elephantine dirges, the guitars and bass always stay in step, either matching each percussive stroke with a monstrous note or splitting off to create a droning, extra-dimensional buzz that only accentuates the massive wall of sounding collapsing upon you like a cosmic singularity. Every pick scrape, every drum fade, every tortured howl from the netherworld was crafted with an eye for detail and intricacy to make this album a cosmic labyrinthine that treats gravity as mere toy; it is perpetually challenging, complex, and crushing. In many ways, Nihl sounds like the work of a veteran unit more than a debut attempt at grandeur.
Of course, all of those elements would mean nothing individually if the entire package lacked cohesion. For all its spellbinding bends and barraging dissonance, Altarage never find themselves chasing rabbit trails or indulging bloated ideas. Nihl is deceptively intricate, yet it never feels dull or loses itself in the winding paths. The production is likely a big factor in this. Although the album’s finish is decidedly raw and plumbs the sonic depths of void-dwellers like Portal and Ulcerate, there’s just enough clarity to allow listeners to peek behind the wall of crawling chaos to witness the infernal machinery allowing the whole hellish engine to run. It’s a perfect balance between polish and cavernous roar that suits the songs and maintains a uniform consistency despite the variation across songs.
Ultimately, Nihl is an album that sounds reverent, both to the primordial powers of chaos that the band transmutes into a surprisingly refined tangle of cyclopean riffs and rhythmic changes and to the legendary bands that strode this mortal plane before them. It’s a wholly impressive debut, one that falls between the two pillars of mimicry and innovation, and for that reason, Nihl gets 4.5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell. Go forth and annihilate.