Coming off of a year like 2018, in which death metal was stronger than it has been in a long time—even the already promising preceding years—any new death metal album is likely to be met with equal enthusiasm and scrutiny. Death metal, like anything, comes in waves, and while its most fertile and important period spanned from the late ’80s up to the early-mid ’90s (not coincidentally the time that both Carcass and Death were at their most active), our current decade has yielded more innovations in an aging, if still ornery genre than any other time in recent memory. Basque group Altarage are carrying the torch for death metal’s darkest and most evil in 2019 with new album The Approaching Roar, which is one nasty piece of work. It’s dark and ugly, fraught with dissonance and torturous riffs and melodies—as far as one can actually call them as such.
The Approaching Roar is Altarage’s third album, essentially a continuation of the long, harrowing depth into the abyss that the Bilbao-based group began back with 2016’s Nihil. And it’s the atmosphere within that abyss that defines the band’s sound, a malevolent storm of guitar distortion that seems too fucked-up and enormous to simply be created with six strings and an electronic box. This is a plague of locusts and a leviathan rising from the deep and the ground opening up and revealing the pit of fire beneath. It’s monstrous and harrowing, and indeed, impressive to behold. To hear tracks like the guttural “Inhabitant” or the eerie ambiance and sudden explosion of “Urn” is to hear a band with a firm grasp on how to make a metal record sound terrifying and huge.
There’s something that Altarage doesn’t do, however, which is make death metal that’s a lot of fun. Certainly there’s enjoyment to be had from listening to The Approaching Roar, and a lot of enjoyment that I get from it personally, but they don’t employ the humor and rawness of Extremity or the soaring melodies of Horrendous or the sheer badassery of Tomb Mold. And that’s just fine—every death metal band need not pull from the same bag of tricks. Altarage’s particular arsenal leans heavy on that which can make a listener jump out of their very skin. And they’re damn good at it.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.