The issue with discussing good death metal sometimes is how best to relay this thought. Merely saying it’s good doesn’t suffice; for most listeners, who have by now internalized perhaps doom and black and sludge metal, but rarely death metal, first it must be established what “good death metal” even means. This hits a snag via hardcore: Our established critical concept of quality metal is often so wrapped up in admiration for punk rock that the things that define metal as metal and not punk are lost. And death metal, more than any other type of extreme metal, is heir apparent to the unbroken tradition of heavy metal, from Sabbath to Priest to Maiden to Metallica inevitably to Death and Chuck Schuldiner’s children.
Gatecreeper‘s Sonoran Depravation is a good death metal record. The band recalls HM-2-driven no-frills Swedish death metal laced with hardcore. One could easily imagine them touring with a pre-Rust Harms Way with a group such as Grave or Autopsy at the top of the bill. They don’t reinvent the wheel on Sonoran Depravation, nor do they set out to; this is, succinctly, death metal’s finest and most distinctive sound, and it needs no improvement.
This sets obvious hurdles to a proper evaluation, of course. Death metal fans will find this record familiar at first blush, from the apocalyptic near-Lovecraftian cover art to the grimy band logo to the muck-caked, chest-stomping riffs that feel so often like a chainsaw right to the balls. Gatecreeper do the prerequisite death metal thing of varying the tempo, sometimes within the song and sometimes without, touching on the typical atmospheres and moods of straight-ahead death metal. The sole remaining touch of hardcore is in the insistent stomp of the drums, steering away from the jazz and prog-indebted business death metal can find itself immersed in. The guitars stay vicious when fast and borderline gothic when slow; you can just imagine the gnashed teeth and woh-woh guitar mouthing they undoubtedly did in the studio. And the vocals sound like a mad dog, growling and barking in simmering perpetual aggression.
The difficulty in conveying the excellence of this record comes not from the record itself, which provides more than enough energy and focused aggression to justify itself, but from the blockages of perception toward heavy metal. The privileged mode of viewing metal comes predominantly from punk; we laud personal or political narratives and decry the fantastical or horrific, laud artsy cover art versus the Frank Franzetta-esque blood-soaked psychedelic fantasies, laud structures and sonics that remind us of alt rock, punk and hardcore records over hard rock, heavy metal and extremity. Death metal draws heavily from the less critically-lauded realms of rock music, tapping as much into Deep Purple and Rainbow as it does the goofiest, dorkiest prog. This is how technical death metal is able to come into existence, and why even non-technical death metal often has progressive song structures and exceptionally difficult riffs.
We see the most-lauded metal achieve those laurels precisely by sounding like something we already enjoy. Ghost and Deafheaven, both excellent bands with incredible albums and songs under their belt, partly achieved their crossover success by folding in elements from outside of the main historical aesthetic body of heavy metal and extreme metal. Gatecreeper does not; this is death metal, purely death metal, through and through. But this does not mean it is merely for the already-converted; the energy of their record is palpable, Kurt Ballou’s masterful-as-always mixing keeps the clutter out and the punch up, and though the lyrics are likely indecipherable to non-metalheads, the mood of them is still legible. Death metal, like the great hard rock bands that punk so valiantly sought to do away with, is driven more by mood than literalism, a fact often misunderstood. The mood-setting semi-mystical gesticulations and half-baked poetry of hard rock and prog are wrongly judged on the same scale as folk lyrics, and likewise more traditionally minded death metal is tossed under the bus compared to the occasional lyrical acumen of punk and hardcore. Gatecreeper understands that vocals in death metal are more a textural element than a manner of conveying lyrics, and so focus on wielding vocals like blasts of animal noise, bursts of human anger in the midst of massively distorted grooving guitars and insistent hardcore drumming.
This, unfortunately, touches on the one weakness of the record. Gatecreeper’s demo featured a roughness that added the psychic atomization of white noise to their up-tempo death metal tunes and gave them an edge of ruthless aggression that obscured faults in songwriting. Cleaned up, the lack of a distinct center becomes more apparent; Gatecreeper sounds like death metal and immaculately reproduce that vicious and traditional death metal sound and aura, but the record lacks a central defining characteristic that feels especially their own. Even this downside inverts itself partially; this is a debut record, and a wildly strong one, providing an excellent base for further development. The future is promising, and the record still fucking rips.