The measure of a death metal band isn’t always how filthy it sounds, but it’s not a bad place to start. Grave Upheaval, an Australian band whose members choose not to show their faces or use their real names (or even use words for song titles), live within that cacophonous murk. The band’s guitar tone feels miles apart from the sound of plucking strings. It’s dense, obscured and menacing, like the angriest sounding swarm of bees, electrified and echoing throughout an endless network of catacombs. It seems remarkable that the sounds on the band’s new untitled album could be made by humans, though there’s not actually much in the way of evidence that they are.
In many ways, Grave Upheaval bear a strong resemblance to another noisy band of anonymous weirdos: Portal. Both are clouded in mystery, not just in terms of their identity but in their chosen method of production. Yet where Portal’s musical approach is something like a horror score filtered through about 10 layers of distortion and then played at 45 RPM, on their untitled second album Grave Upheaval’s sonic treatments leave the melodies at the core of their songs approachable and accessible. Or at least as accessible as something this terrifying can sound.
It takes a few minutes for opening track “II-I” to reveal itself, a faint rumble of ambience creating an air of suspense before a booming slo-mo riff crashes through the mist. It lurches and lumbers with a creeping terror, like some giant beast awakening from its slumber, while a low-moaning vocal echoes in the background. It feels less like a song than a slow march toward one’s very demise. It’s chilling, yet the aesthetic that the band cultivates here proves to be exhilarating, even sort of fun when applied at different tempos and melodic permutations. The relatively brief “II-II” roars with an old-school crunch, like a more spectral interpretation of Autopsy’s death-doom. And the banshee blast of “II-III” kicks up the tempo into a blackened haunting that showcases the best of Grave Upheaval’s textural experiments, vocals hissing in and out of the mix like actual apparitions coming out of the woodwork.
There’s an admirable amount of diversity in Grave Upheaval’s vocals. They balance baritone bellows with monstrous growls, high-pitched squeals and all manner of other unsettling communiqués. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the typical monotone belch that accompanies quite a few death metal recordings, though it’s worth pointing out that their lyrics are, by and large, incomprehensible. That’s not that important though. The vocals are another textural tool in their arsenal, conveying mood without the need for articulation. And that mood, regardless of tempo or aesthetic variation, is one of pure terror.