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8/10 Chaim

ASHEN HORDE - Nine Plagues - CD - Mandal Records - 2015

Ah, Hollywood, California, the land of milk, honey and...death metal.

The tag name on Ashen Horde's style bears the title 'Black Metal', a title that couldn't be more misleading, as Nine Plagues is nothing short of being pure death metal; not black/death, not blackened death metal, not black/thrash and not even death/thrash, neither is it 'melodic' or 'brutal' or whatever death metal; and we do apologize for not including all the hybrids, sub-hybrids and meta-hybrids of metal's most extreme sub-sub-sub styles here, trying to describe what this album IS NOT. No, ladies and gentlemen, Nine Plagues is simply death metal; it is as death metal as death metal comes. In fact, this album has captured the perfect death metal atmosphere, the perfect production and the perfect technique and until you realize this - expecting in the process something entirely different (especially if you're familiar with the band's previous work) - you're going to have some rough time trying to crack this album's code and, god forbid, even enjoy it.

Trying to fit Nine Plagues into the wrong paradigm will cause the listener to cringe; the dichotomy between the latter-day Immortal-like guitar sound and the strange, unattractive tone of Trevor Portz's vocals (that are somewhat misplaced in the context of the music) makes the music hard to swallow (plus the fact the music is too complex and technical and exhibiting too many death metal aesthetics to be even remotely regarded as black metal). The stark aesthetic dispute shown here in all its glory is a gap that is not easily mended, the styles not easily reconciled. It's like oil and water, or in the musical context, like the highly sophisticated song structures, writing and execution and the somewhat primordial (though slightly processed) vocal performance.

Only when you realize this is actually a pretty intense, technical death metal album, with vocals to match, are you going to immensely enjoy it, but only then. We know - some eyebrows may be raised at this statement, but all you have to do is really listen; listen to Portz's singing style: is it not like a marriage in hell between Carcass's Jeff Walker's and Cancer's John Walker's vocals? It most certainly is.

We get where the black metal reference is coming from; it's the guitar sound: a grittier, slightly more down-tuned sound distinctive to the above mentioned Immortal. And indeed, couple with that sound and playing style the occasionally croaky vocals - and ta-dam! A death metal version of Immortal is born. However, not every song echoes with the spirit of Immortal and besides, Immortal were never THAT technical; more epic perhaps, but way less technical. Funnily, however, the technical aspect of Nine Plagues never overshadows the music and never diminishes the intensity of the foreboding atmosphere.

When fully embracing the fact Nine Plagues is a full-blown death metal album, and putting all aesthetic disputes to rest, something will occur: you will begin to pay attention to details, and those are in abundance here. This album is one of those rare albums that are actually interesting, in the sense the music ignites within the listener the urge to discover what's next every passing second, and in addition the listener doesn't really have a clue about what's going to happen next.

Nine Plagues has got all those musical nooks and crannies, dark microcosms that are being revealed constantly and while being exposed to the light, they burn brightly only to be replaced by another surprise coming from a different angle, another bright light bearing a different wavelength. Nine Plagues is an incredibly complex work; the guitar work is ingenious and intriguing; the rhythm section is ripping, menacing and razor-sharp; and the drum work is phenomenal (it may be a drum machine, but you wouldn't know), ranging from slower dirges to hyper-fast blasts to anything in between, showing some unconventional and intricate rhythm patterns.

Nine Plagues is the renaissance of death metal; it bears the marks of old and ancient as well as wears the ribbons of modernity and beyond; like a collision of old and new, of traditional and experimental, of primitivism and intelligent sophistication; as timeless as death itself. Yes, it is like oil and water that never blend, but boy, what colors do they emit when they are coupled and in the presence of light!

Fans of complex and innovative metal, who are not intimidated by music that isn't catchy, or those who are hooked on Immortal's most death-metal-oriented moments, as well as those who dig bands such as Death (who doesn't?!), Theory In Practice or Australian StarGazer, will surely have a ball listening to this mighty recording. Coming to think of it, the rest will also enjoy it, since this is a complete, all-embracing death metal experience.

Highly recommended! (8/10)


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