Pennsylvania death metal crew, Horrendous, wondered if they might release another album after 2018’s Idol LP. The usual pressures of working day jobs, raising families, and committing time and dedication to lifelong musical pursuits resulted in a stress-festering tension that made them question if it was all worth it. Something had to give. The band completed the writing sessions for Ontological Mysterium as far back as 2019, yet the interruption of a global pandemic delayed the recording into late 2022. In that time, they realised that their last record did not receive the touring time it deserved. They knew that album number five would need to rediscover their love for classic heavy metal. Nothing should be off limits. Everything would be viewed through the lens of death metal. More importantly, things should be fun again.
You can sense from the first note that Horrendous have re-discovered their zest. The ringing power chords of opening track, ‘The Blaze’, strike thunder in the heart like the bombast of an Accept concert. Yet underneath the froth of electricity is a subtle shoegaze combination of luscious guitar shapes. The band’s trademark gut-spewing vocals are so out of place and yet so in the moment. Harmonised guitars weep in the climax like whistling dolphin echoes rippling through the river basins.
Horrendous stopped caring about how weird they could make death metal years ago, but ‘Chrysopoeia (The Archaeology of Dawn)’ might be the strangest mutation of the extreme and the serene we’ve witnessed so far this decade. String-shredding thrash metal guitars grind the melodies like a coffee machine – the ingredients are raw and inedible, but the final product is gratifying and soothing. Into this maelstrom, steps bassist, Alex Kulick, who handles his frets like a member of Atheist. Listen how he negotiates the transition to a soul-ascending Dream Theater mellifluence at the half-way point. How can a song with blood-dripping vocals and chaotic neo-improv rhythms be so majestic?
Ontological Mysterium is a pleasure to absorb; it’s a delight to examine. Every bass-shredding blackened thrash assault wanders into a labyrinth that leaves you wanting to retrace your steps with no great impatience. ‘Neon Leviathan’ ramps up the black metal ferocity as if conducted by a master of ceremonies opening an orgy for his debauched guests. By contrast ‘Aurora Neoterica’ transports you back to the 1970s, to the era of The Odessa File and The Parallax View, when the film’s protagonists stumbled across a conspiracy that would imperil their lives until a nefarious cabal silenced them. You know the mood – jazz bass grooves, China splashes, string bends that work through the frets using the same motif. Blink and you might see a villain from Cagney and Lacey pull up in his chauffeur-driven limo.
Horrendous seldom repeat their riffs, but those that stick remain lodged in your brain. ‘Preterition Hymn’ sails close to the main hook from Soundgarden’s ‘Loud Love’ yet forces a grisly vocal sneer through the channels and leaves you in a state of suspense. Tempos threaten to swerve into a turmoil but stay on the right side of coherence. Grooves appear and then fall onto the guillotine to be replaced by new ideas. The lyrical narrative in ‘Cult of Shaad’oah’ is one man’s quest to ascend from the mortal mediocrity of human existence to the pantheon of the gods. Think of it as a metaphor for perseverance and grit with sword-waving gestures. The drum heroics of Jamie Knox insert Buddy Rich into this rough concoction of old school death metal and wide-eyed, beer-guzzling elation.
Of course, we can’t talk about a Horrendous album without commenting on their bizarre musical antics. ‘Exeg(en)esis’ reverberates like a psychobilly dance, yet the rhythm section refuses to get in line with the chivalrous thrash metal fretwork of Matt Knox and Damian Herring. The title-track is like Frank Zappa getting his mitts on a death metal record and re-interpreting it through his warped sense of humour. You can hear tech death, prog rock, and melodic black metal capped off by a nod to Voivod’s blitz of the mind in their Killing Technology era.
But perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this record is its ability to dazzle the mind and perplex you with its deranged sense of impatience, just like Megadeth’s legendary Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? You’re not sure how all four band members end up on the same page with such disparate ideas, but the sheer enthusiasm and force of will earn your applause while delivering the thrills you seek from a gallant heavy metal record. Nothing is beyond their experimental instincts, yet the music still pulsates like a canonical death metal album from the late 1980s.
Horrendous can take a bow and high-five each other at the sound of the last note on Ontological Mysterium. It’s evident that they found that special ingredient to invigorate their love of music and their sense of purpose. Jamie Knox has already stated that this is not the last album we will hear from his band. Bravo!
Release Date: 18/08/2023
Record Label: Season of Mist
Standout tracks: Chrysopoeia (The Archaeology of Dawn), Cult of Shaad’oah, The Death Knell Ringeth
Suggested Further Listening: Megadeth – Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? (1986), Ethereal Void – Gods of a Dead World (2023), Atheist – Piece of Time (1990)