Sunday, October 30, 2011

Album Review: Abysmal Dawn - Leveling the Plane of Existence






Abysmal Dawn - Leveling the Plane of Existence 
(2011 Relapse Records)

As cold weather and falling leaves are making abundantly clear, winter and a new year aren't far off, and even though I've never been one to have a "Best of" list in mind each year, it occurs to me that there are some releases that just shouldn't go forgotten.  After seeing them play a bar gig a few years ago, I became an instant Abysmal Dawn fan.  I bought their first album, From Ashes, on the spot.  The follow-up, Programmed to Consume, somehow escaped my notice for a while, but I remedied that ASAP, and was better prepared when Leveling the Plane of Existence was released in early 2011.  

In a landscape cluttered with bands trying to be more brutal, more technical or just more of the same, Abysmal Dawn is a band that stands on its own without needing to be propped up by gimmicks.  Naturally, it's impossible to listen to a death metal album without hearing the undeniable influences of the genre's originators, but Abysmal Dawn brings a lot to the table with Leveling the Plane of Existence.  There are abundant hooks and subtle melodies scattered throughout the album, but these don't sound forced the way that they do when some death metal bands attempt to utilize them.  The prime example is "The Sleeper Awakens," which despite being the closing track, sums up the entire Abysmal Dawn catalog.  It's death metal with some clean guitars and distinct melodies, but it's not polished beyond all aggression like so many formerly cutting-edge bands' recent works.  "Rapture Renowned" is another standout track, perhaps because it recalls the band's earliest output, while "In Service of Time" and "Perpetual Dormancy" showcase what Abysmal Dawn is about in its current incarnation.  The title track serves as a further reminder, however, that this is indeed a death metal band with the chops to hang with veterans who've been at this for a lot longer.

As a guitarist with a stated interest in guitar tone, the authentic pummeling of the rhythm guitars appeals to me as much through my car stereo or computer speakers as out in front of the stage, and precision isn't sacrificed to achieve brutality.  Meanwhile, jackhammer drumming and incredibly locked-in bass integrate with the guitars without distracting, and the tightness during the more technical parts is something that modern metal songwriters should pay attention to.  There is a tendency among many bands (especially younger bands with many, many hours logged watching YouTube guitar tutorials) to throw every single technique and tempo change into every single song instead of having a solid structure in place, and then relying on studio editing to make it work.  It simply doesn't sound believable to anyone who has spent any time playing in a band.  I'm not one to advocate mimicking bands, but having seen Abysmal Dawn live a few times now (and ticket in-hand for their next visit!) I point to them as "doing it right" on their recorded material.  Their frontman, Charles Elliot, delivers studio-quality riffing *and* some of the most brutal-yet-intelligible death metal growls onstage, not compromising one to excel at the other.  Their performances have only grown tighter with each album.

But there has to be a catch, right?  There is, and it's the production, or the guitar tones to be more accurate.  It's not bad - I love the overall atmosphere - but something doesn't sit quite right with me.  From Ashes sounded pretty raw, but there were a lot of black metal elements included that really evoked a Scandinavian vibe (let's say Dissection as a point of reference).  Programmed to Consume displayed a better production but far more emphasis on death metal.  Leveling the Plane of Existence basically goes all-out into death metal, as heavy as anything you could want in a top-tier label release.  The solos remain as focused as ever instead of drifting into the high-speed wanking or schizophrenic nonsense that many bands tend to dish out when the lead guitarist starts getting bored.  The issue is that as delightfully organic as the guitars sound, there are certain passages that get rough and somewhat muddy, or at least indistinct, especially some of the more intricate parts.  Perhaps it's a necessary evil, that technically proficient bands need a slightly slicker production - or in this case, a somewhat more refined guitar tone - to better convey certain aspects of their music.  That's really a double-edged sword in Abysmal Dawn's case, because there were a few moments when I found myself hoping that the next song or riff would be cut more from the raw-edged From Ashes cloth, meaning a blackened influence.  I wouldn't want to hear them sounding heavily processed and polished like so many other bands, but the very live-sounding guitars seem one or two EQ notches from sludge.

I almost hate to mention those non-issues as negatives, but the death metal genre is at a familiar crossroads, where there seems to be a resurgence of appreciation for the old-school brutal death metal and a love affair with all things technical ("progressive" perhaps?) in terms of both the playing style and the equipment involved.  Forced to choose, I'll side with Abysmal Dawn's more traditional death metal approach this time around, but I do think that a slightly more clear-cut production would convince some tech-metal fans who may be on the fence.  Regardless, the music is excellent, and I rate it 4.5 out of 5.

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