Incantation are legends of New York death metal even if sole surviving founder, John McEntee, now resides in Pennsylvania. As one of the Big Apple four along with Immolation, Mortician and Suffocation, the group have recycled more band members than a Veolia waste management plant. Consistency of output is one of Incantation’s virtues, but their avowal to stick with the same monotone death metal of the 1991 era can also be one of their biggest weaknesses. This did not stop them experiencing commercial success on 2020’s Sect of Vile Divinities, which peaked at number 51 on the US Billboard Top 200. There’s much talk these days of “cavernous death metal”, and many artists want to reconnect the genre with its malevolent origins, so where do McEntee’s band fit into a contemporary scene that shows no sign of growing tired of their music?
You’ll be forgiven for approaching this album with caution. Baritone growls hover in the mix like a lawnmower on its lowest setting; slimy tremolo riffs weave in and out of your headphones; drums change tempo with no warning; the production seems locked in the Scott Burns era of 1989. Do we need another album to remind us that old school death metal is the pinnacle? Mmm… Most of the judgements you make before listening to Unholy Deification are unfair. Incantation’s ability to merge complexity with primitive brutality creates the illusion of raw death metal dressed down as a repulsive corpse with fresh wounds. In fact, opener, ‘Offerings (The Swarm) IV’, is a puzzle of non-repeating riffs and temperamental rhythms with thrash metal foundations in the drums. Whammy compression effects from debut lead guitarist, Luke Shively, add a green bile to the black and brown charnel house of sound. Follow-up, ‘Concordat (The Pact) I’, reminds you that the two axemen in Incantation can write an air guitar gem among the sudden swerves and sporadic blast beat eruptions. Listen to the morbid doom transition at 03:50. Is this not the definition of cavernous death metal?
Of course, it’s easy to mix up Incantation with Immolation. McEntee subbed as the live guitarist for the latter in 2001, and current lead guitarist of Immolation, Alex Bouks, did a seven-year spell in Incantation from 2017-2014. ‘Chalice (Vessel Consanguineous) VIII’ could pass for a song from the 2022 album from Ross Dolan and crew. Yet the festering ‘Homunculus (Spirit Made Flesh) IX’ throbs with a death-doom impulse, like the early Paradise Lost records. A lingering lead guitar savours the whammy bar effects throughout as if leaving behind a noxious poison. McEntee’s vocal grunts are more animated here and more grotesque. Like Pete Sandoval (Terrorizer/ex-Morbid Angel), the drums find ways to maintain a double-kick agitation in the slower moments.
The vocal department is the most neglected aspect of the New York death metal bands. That’s one of the reasons why they never achieved the same acclaim as their contemporaries in the Florida scene. You can blame ex-vocalist, Will Rahmer, for leaving Incantation after their 1990 EP to form Mortician. His low range ruminations are the default setting for this type of death metal. Incantation went through four vocalists before McEntee took over the duties in 2002, yet his pipes are no different to his predecessors. Imagine how invincible the dungeon-doom of ‘Megaron (Sunken Chamber) VI’ would sound with the gut-spewing agony of Obituary’s John Tardy on the microphone…
Fortunately, the quality of the guitar riffs and the capricious tempo-changes deliver a level of consistency that most bands would kill to emulate after thirteen albums. ‘Convulse (Words of Power) III’ oozes class in the way the riff builds from sliding chords and pinch harmonics. There’s no need to go beyond second gear when you’re in a swamp like this one, yet they thunder down on your ears with a spontaneous burst of blast beats when you least expect them. And who cares about the drab monotone vocals when the grinding death-doom of ‘Altar (Unify in Carnage) V’ sounds so menacing in its flesh-eating desire? McEntee shows on closing track, ‘Circle (Eye of Ascension) VII’, that his voice suits the slower-paced blood-curdles than the faster Bolt Thrower excursions.
There might come a day when we fall asleep listening to the old school legends retread the same ground. That day is nowhere near in sight for Incantation. This record is more multi-faceted than you think.
Release Date: 25/08/2023
Record Label: Relapse Records
Standout tracks: Concordat (The Pact) I, Homunculus (Spirit Made Flesh) IX, Convulse (Words of Power) III
Suggested Further Listening: Immolation – Acts of God (2022), Mortician – Domain of Death (2001), Ripped to Shreds – 劇變 (Jubian) (2022)