Ghoulgotha - “To Starve The Cross”
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Only in death metal reviews can words like “depraved,” “diseased,” “rotten,” “filthy,” “putrid,” “rancid,” “foul,” and the like be used to praise a musician’s work, but what we’re really referring to when we make use of all this morgue-y terminology seem to be things like production values and lyrical content, and only in truly special cases to important things like songwriting and technique. Entombed’s “buzzsaw” guitar tones come to mind, as well as the “otherworldly” vocal presence on Demilich’s one-and-only full-length Nespithe, but since these bands expanded the death metal reviewer’s lexicon in the early-to-mid ’90s, the genre’s been wanting for pioneers.
To Starve The Cross isn’t quite as jarring as Ghoulgotha’s much-slept-upon The Deathmass Cloak, but rest assured, it’s going to be an uncomfortable ride for any and all Ghoulgotha virgins - even for death metal fans used to the grimy and gory stuff that Ghoulgotha also obviously worship. For those already converted by their excellently-titled debut, To Starve The Cross offers a more focused take on the Ghoulgotha trademark: a death/doom hybrid that sounds as if it’s been locked in some dark vault and started to spoil and come apart. For the uninitiated, mastermind Elektrokutioner (ex-Decrepitaph, ex-Encoffination, ex-Father Befouled) plays four frets above the norm on an out-of-tune guitar (counterpointed by one perfectly in tune), destabilizing expectations from the jump. They’ve been accused of sounding sloppy or “amateurish” thanks to Elektrokutioner’s playstyle coupled with the band’s choppy, dissonant songwriting, but Goulgotha’s sound is wrong in all the right ways. Death metal has gotten too clean and put-together on the whole, preferring custom and tradition to true innovation, of which I believe The Deathmass Cloak, and now To Starve The Cross, are pureblooded examples. Someone has got to rattle the pillars.
To Starve The Cross is another broken Lament Configuration of a death metal album, packed with cobwebby leadwork and thumping, dragging rhythms. While “Village of Flickering Torches” isn’t quite as off-putting as “Gazing into Melted Night” off of Deathmass (did I mention these guys have the best song titles in metal?), it won’t take long for Ghoulgotha’s witchy vibe to resonate with open-minded listeners. Starve spends a lot of its first quarter just circling the listener, shambling from the death to the doom end of Ghoulgotha’s sound. You can feel this stuff settling on you like a fine grime through the zombie lockstep of “Pangaea Reforms,” the sickly creep of “The Sulfur Age,” and the cavernous “Abyssic Eyes” before “A Lord In The Shattered Mirror” slumps to life, darting from the Gothic flash of an Elektrokutioner solo to deranged plodding, where Ghoulgotha’s woozy grasp of tempo is bound to test patience. While they aren’t as jarring as they could get to be on Deathmass, these parts will either derail the album or utterly thrill listeners. There’s little middle ground with them, since that out-of-tune axe and the band’s odd-metered rhythms sound as if they could fall apart at any moment, and often come perilously close to doing just that. This approach reaches its fullest realization on “Visceral Seas” and “Wounds Immaculate,” the former attaining an absurdly elegiac tone, and the latter, which opens with a dusty synth copped from some ’80s horror shlockfest - Witchery comes to mind, or maybe an early Hellraiser sequel - shuffles and bounds its way into a near-perfect death metal song against all odds.
That’s true for every track on To Starve The Cross: none of these ten songs sound like any death metal out today, and even more impressively, rarely sound like any track before or after, whether for their attention to detail (the bulging bass on “Damp Breeze of Sleeping Veins,” the acoustics on “A Holy Book Scribed By Wolves”) or their mastery of moonlit-graveyard atmosphere (“Thou, Beneath Ligaments Foul”). For now, Ghoulgotha will have to deal with the backlash of doing things other bands aren’t, but through their off-kilter approach to songwriting, Ghoulgotha are finding a way to adapt an old-school death metal ethos to a new-school vision that I believe will one day earn them a spot among the genre’s pioneers. Ultimately, that’s up to the listeners to decide for themselves. It sounds like a cop-out to end on that note, so I’ll say this much: Ghoulgotha’s mission to make ugly and challenging death metal ugly for fans long-accustomed to ugly and challenging is worthy of admiration, and when a death metal album can keep you on the edge of your seat in 2016, wondering how far this rickety, rotted-out sound can go before it gives way, even as it surprises you at every turn - that, too, is worth something more. Ghoulgotha’s To Starve The Cross sits very comfortably near the top of the list of my favorite metal releases this year.