Death metal is music of eternal descent. The guitars are the muck into which the drums pound, while the vocalist growls amidst it all like a drowning beast. It’s a fitting style to be pioneered in Florida, a state that has a head start on other coastal areas in the U.S. in sinking into the ocean. A lot of classic death metal glories in that queasy sinking feeling, but the Pennsylvania band Outer Heaven take their cues from groups like Gorguts and Demilich who have fun imagining what the music would sound like if it were trying to get out.
On their excellent second album, Infinite Psychic Depths, the riffs and guitar tones are as soupy and viscous as ever. But the quintet pushes against that downward force with an arsenal of arrangement choices—chord changes, tempo switches, technical guitar leads, high-up-on-the-neck melodic bass lines. Alongside reigning death metal champs like Blood Incantation and Tomb Mold (whose guitarist Derrick Vella makes an appearance here), Outer Heaven are experimenting with the subgenre in ways that never takes the music away from its core action verbs: Gurgle. Pound. Churn. “We just like to play heavy music with a little bit of technicality” is how Haines put it in an interview, taking great and amusing pains to avoid invoking the subgenre tag “technical death metal.” It is music of brutal determination and iron will, the sound of the beast struggling to escape the swamp.
Frontman Austin Haines, working with guitarists Jon Kunz and Zak Carter, fashions a sound thick enough to pull under a bison, but the band still manages to move in nimble, surprising directions. On “Starcrusher,” sonorous bits of doom metal riffing and frenetic little melodeath guitar lines surface like swamp bubbles. Halfway through “Unspeakable Aura,” female vocalists break through the din, singing in eerie pentatonic harmony and sending shafts of light into the murk. And a minute into album highlight “Rotting Stone/D.M.T.,” sublimely cheesy harmonized twin guitars soar like F-150s over a county fair.
Infinite Psychic Descent comes positioned as a “prequel” to the band’s also-great 2018 debut, Realms of Eternal Decay. That album, Haines explained, told the story of a virus that led to an outbreak of cannibalism: To further elaborate, he shared what he called his “Stoned Ape Theory,” which speculates on the role that hallucinogens and other mind-altering substances may have played in the evolution of human speech and creativity. This album, Haines said, fills in the backstory to that first album, an idea so invested that the last track of this album, “From Nothingness to Eternity,” fades into the first track of the debut, and when you lay out the gatefolds of the two records together, they make one splash-page-styled piece of art. It’s just about the perfect concept-album fodder: cool to think about, theoretically plausible, entirely superfluous.
How would you know about any of this, outside of reading Haines’ press statement about it? That’s simple: You wouldn’t. Death metal needs about as much backstory as a burp. But even without a single intelligible lyric between them, I can report from field studies that the albums, sequenced together as Haines suggests, melt together nicely in one long, organic, wet roar. You can nearly smell the music’s textures: wet leaves, damp moss, fresh manure. By the time the opening track of Realm of Eternal Decay rolls around, you’ve briefly forgotten other styles of music exist.
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