Finnish death metal has a reputation for being some of the rankest, stenchiest music on the planet. Where their Swedish counterparts used buzzsaw guitars and speed to bludgeon listeners with their hardcore spirit, bands like Demilich and Andremelech lugged truly monstrous riffs and bizarre rhythms through otherworldly sludge. These bands mixed the slimy, psychedelic ooze of the genre’s most outre compositions with thick, mid tempo riffs that helped garner the scene its decades old reputation. Ghastly’s third album, Mercurial Passages, proves that Finnish death is anything but a monolith. While rooted firmly within the conventions of death metal, the band displays considerable restraint dynamically. Their heaviest riffs are used sparingly, as accents, while the band is free to focus on the strange melodic passages bleed into the realm of psychedelia. Mercurial Passages boasts a lighter sound, more ethereal than Ghastly’s contemporaries, and it’s all the better for it.
That’s not to say Mercurial Passages is easy listening, however. Ghastly deftly build a sense of uncertainty and foreboding through a potent combo of loose, tip-toeing rhythms and dreamlike melodies. Chugging riffs lay groundwork for the band to catch wavering, dissonant chords in reverb like flies in a web. It’s a subtle trick, but tracks like “Dawnless Dreams” or “Perdition” showcase an attention to atmosphere and pacing that, while not exactly cathartic, is truly enveloping. It’s imperative to understand Ghastly’s approach. Mercurial Passages is death metal meditation, their intent to take listeners deeper into a psychic gloom with songwriting bordering on dream logic. Pure aggression is thoughtfully spaced throughout the record, and the album often builds tension with death/doom riffing only to pull the rug out from under listeners with a precision, psychedelic left hook.
What’s so distinct about Ghastly’s style is their willingness to employ conventional death metal sounds to accomplish their intent, rather than dive completely into progressive rock or metal like Sweven or even Opeth. The band expertly balances old-school riffing with that slick veneer of psychedelia. Songs stitch together death metal, a dash of doom tempos, and unnerving melodic passages with ease. And it’s the expertise with which they transition and evolve their sound throughout that makes even the shortest tracks feel like progressive metal odysseys. Even old school Finnish bands like Demilich tended to radically congeal their influences into a completely new beast, warping their guitar tone, their vocals, and songwriting into something neither conventional nor fully progressive. “Mercial Passages” sounds old school, from the tones to the songwriting, but with a fresher coat of paint. It’s that classic Celtic Frost ethos of taking conventional, even primitive metal tropes and arranging them in such a way as to be eccentric. The payoff is that Ghastly, in spite of Finnish death metal’s reputation, is remarkably approachable.
Mercurial Passages is an album that wears its influences on its shoulders, yet manages to steer these stylings in unusual directions by the strength of Ghastly’s songwriting. The band doesn’t break any new ground with this record, but they’ve solidified their identity and tightened their compositions considerably. Where their previous LP Death Velour used lengthy builds of about six or seven minutes to build atmosphere, the brevity here is a refreshingly approachable take on esoteric, old school death metal. It’s rare for a band this niche to sound this accessible, but Ghastly accomplishes just that without losing any of their metal edge.
Label: 20 Buck Spin
Nonbinary writer on the move from one hemisphere to the other. A black metal gal and prog dad.