Friday, September 21, 2012

Mortification - Scribe of the Pentateuch (2012)

Mortification has been a staple of the Christian metal scene since 1990 when the band was formed from a re-grouped iteration of Australian power metal band Lightforce.  Due to the heavier, more European aggressive thrash style they had adoption, they changed the name to reflect the grittier, heavier and more pounding direction they would take.  Ultimately, this led to their highly regarded proto-death metal eponymous debut, and the record largely regarded as the band's magnum opus, the still effective death metal release "Scrolls of the Megilloth".  I still love that album, and while I prefer the more exploratory and progressive follow-up album "Post Momentary Affliction", I get why people still fawn over Scrolls to this day, because 20 years later it's still a great listen.  After PMA and the departure of original drummer Jayson Sherlock, the band went through member and style changes ever couple years/albums, ever evolving from a heavy thrash outfit to a more gritty power metal style, to hybrid power and death metal, to more traditional metal, back to a thrash/death approach, then a bit more experimental with their previous album, ever so wittily titled "The Evil Addiction Destroying Machine".  That album has been largely panned, and while I get why some don't like it, I sort of enjoy the Motorhead-esque punk-metal thing that album has going on.  It had some gaps in songwriting that I felt kept it from being a more top-shelf Mortification release, but it's still a good listen once in a while.

Now as with any big name band, each successive album is always purported to be "heavier than the last" and the fans area always split on whether the latest album is "the best thing they've ever done" or "utter tripe, these guys should hang it up".  This latest EP falls into neither category, and perhaps that is its biggest weakness - it's not strong enough to herald the all-out return to heavy death metal that many fans have been waiting for nearly 20 years, but it's a good enough effort to show that Mortification still has life left in them, despite Steve Rowe's failing health after years of battling with cancer and the toll that has taken on him physically.  It's no secret that Mortification's music has been hit and miss since Steve's battle with cancer started, and while I own and enjoy nearly every album in their discography, there are a couple I rarely spin any more because they just don't measure up to what came before them, or even to some of the more recent material that has shown Steve put out 'workmanlike' albums, full of unremarkable-yet-solid songs.  This is no slight to Steve, as I consider myself a big Mortification fan through thick and thin, and have for the last 20+ years.  I am glad to see Steve trying some new things, even as he retreads past formulas here.

Musically, this is mostly thrash with leanings of the death metal Mortification is known for, along with an undercurrent of doom metal, and the usual classic metal and NWOBHM influences shining through.  But for the most part, this is Steve and company thrashing it up with as much energy as one might expect from a guy whose body has been weakened by disease.  In other words, this is mostly mid-paced thrash with some faster tempos here and there (especially in the first 2-3 tracks) with some frills.  Solo work by Lincoln Bowen is as good as it was in his prior tenure in the band, with lots of little bits here and there, though less full-on ripping solos than might be expected (with the exception of "In Garland Hall").  Riffing is good, with plenty of likable stuff that sounds good, with that edge that "EnVision EnVangeline" had, if not a bit grittier and "dirtier" sounding.  Newcomer Andrew Esnouf does a respectable job on the drums, sounding a bit like a less robotic and slightly more powerful version of former Morty skinsman Keith Bannister.  He has a few spots where he shines and shows that he could develop into a really great drummer if he tightens his attack, puts a little more force behind it, and mixes up the fills and such a bit more.  Steve's bass work is as quality as ever, and he even riffs pretty fast at times, which is nice to hear, given the diminished capacity one might expect to hear.  As always, he is up pretty high in the mix so you don't wonder where his bass is at.  That is one constant in all Mortification albums, really; you can always expect to hear Steve play his bass.

Lyrically, Steve plays it pretty straight for the most part, toning down his signature sense of cheeseball humor a bit for more straight-forward and serious  topics.  This is probably a good idea, as the previous album's lyrics tended toward the more obtuse (by Steve's standards, anyway), and sometimes his ideas didn't quite come across as clearly as they should have.  Vocally, Steve is in between the toned down death growls he has used here and there from "Triumph of Mercy" on, and the more straight-forward thrash/power metal voice on albums like "EnVision EnVangeline", "Hammer of God" or much of "Relentless".  It's good to hear him sounding a bit more "throaty" than recent albums, because his death growls on "Brain Cleaner" and "Erasing the Goblin" were a bit flat.  He also incorporates some almost black metal sounding stuff on the title track and in spots during "Weapons of Mass Salvation", which is a nice/interesting touch.  Also, this is probably the first time we've heard a layered vocal approach since "Post-Momentary Affliction", which I am glad to hear.  That was an aspect of PMA and Scrolls that I always enjoyed, so it's good he's digging that out of the bag of tricks again.  Something that I must mention is the clean vocals during "In Garland Hall" and "The White Death", because they're a bit strange - they have a bit of a doom vibe to them (hence the earlier comment), and they sound almost like they're just slightly (and I mean slightly) off-key.  Once you hear the songs a few times they make sense and fit well, but the first couple times you spin the CD you might do a double-take wondering whether or not those vocals "fit" the music.  But in the end, they work because Steve has a funny way of adding elements like that which don't add up on paper, but somehow come out sounding fine, if not good.

This is technically an EP, which includes several "bonus" tracks from other Mortification releases in the 2000's, though it only covers from 2002's "Relentless" forward, taking one track from each.  The picks are good overall, though the choice of "Elasticized Outrage" from "The Evil Addiction Destroying Machine" is fitting, if a bit curious.  I might have gone with one of the other tracks, though given the context of the new tracks on this EP, it fits well.  If you already own the other albums, these new tracks won't be any more than just an excuse to play the CD longer, but if not, they're a good introduction to the other material from the band over the last 10 years.  The real meat and potatoes here are the 6 new tracks, and overall they're quality.  They sound good, production-wise, though part of me wishes Steve would go the modern production route a bit more and give the material a bit more "beefy" sound, but I suppose since this is mostly thrash and mid-paced metal in a very classic vein, it makes more sense to give it a more authentic "live" feel.  I enjoyed this CD quite a bit, but that's me as a long-time Mortification fan talking.  If you're unfamiliar with the band, I'd recommend any of their first 5 or 6 albums as a more fitting introduction, if only to hear the band at their absolute peak.  If you gave up on Mortification after they quit playing death metal and have decided to give the thrash iteration of the band a try, this is a good place to start, since it includes not only solid new tracks, but also sample tracks from several other recent albums.  Mileage will vary, even among the Mortification faithful, so I will tentatively give this a hearty recommendation and say approach with caution only if you hate "Christian" metal or can't let go of "Scrolls of the Megilloth" and wish this was "Scrolls 2".  If that's you, I say come into the now - you might enjoy it here.


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