Sometimes it takes a seemingly unrelated source to explain why an album is so damn good, and that’s certainly the case with Graveborn’s new album, The Athenaeum. This record is the death metal album by a relatively new name to beat in 2018, at least in the sub-genre’s more technical and venturesome sphere. There’s a very good reason why Graveborn’s album edges ahead, and the reason is provided by the world of evolutionary biology.
It’s not surprising that a scientific theory could help explain why The Athenaeum is such a commanding album, and why Graveborn is such a fascinating band; after all, you could write a doctoral thesis on this band’s complex musicality.
Based in Boston, Graveborn has been able to craft music isolated from the main branch of death metal. That’s not to say Boston lacks other death metal bands. The band has developed a truly distinctive voice, one that was first heard by the majority of the international death metal community on 2013’s A Vile Genesis, followed by 2014’s Samsara and 2016’s Seeds of Life. These releases certainly put Graveborn on the map, but it was a mere appetizer compared with what’s served on The Athenaeum. All these releases are unquestionably intense and impressive displays of technicality and originality.
Graveborn has continually refined its sound over the years, bringing more artful sculpturing to its downtuned dissonance, and setting that against a backdrop of often kind of experimental textures. The band’s work has evolved to become steadily more nerve-shredding and formidable, with the usual riff-based shreds of death metal mutilated into a seething and polychromatic canvas of avant-garde atmospherics.
The crushingly heavy technicality on the eight-song release will either be wholly attractive and hypnotic, or simply bewildering. There are no doubt a few metal fans who appreciate where Graveborn are heading in theory, but are left scratching their heads trying to find an entry point into the band’s works. The cryptic and claustrophobic vortex of The Athenaeum won’t make that quandary any easier, and if you felt Graveborn’s sonic template was a maelstrom of inaccessibility before, nothing has changed in that regard.
Still, challenging music is the point here, and if there’s one thing Graveborn demands, it’s full commitment to its releases. Guitars provide deluges of malformed riffs and piercing notes plucked from the depths of the cosmos. The slow hypothermic intro of “The Astronomer” shows how effective and chilling the band can be when pared down to bare industrial bones. However, it’s the multifaceted and atmospheric turbulence of “The Alchemist” and “The Watcher” that exhibit the band’s prowess at splicing anti-harmonic insanity with maestro dexterity, to hammer the inhospitably home.
The Athenaeum is a challenging album, and also electrifying. It’s unconventional, and it transforms death metal into something transfixing and novel. It certainly fits into the wider ordo of death metal, resides in the familia of technical death metal, and you could rightly situate it in the genus of progressive technical death metal too. Still, it’s the species that’s most interesting. There’s imaginative (and murderous) musicality here that would easily occupy space in the avant-garde metal realms. Ultimately, the fact that it’s necessary to debate how to best to describe Graveborn proves just how innovative is the band’s approach to death metal.
The Athenaeum is a forward-thinking album to savor over time. Repeated listening reveals more layers and buried detail, and there’s abundant wrathful dynamics and density to luxuriate in.