Devastating. Massive. Complex. Few albums in recent memory have been such a litmus test for these descriptors as the second full length album from Sweden’s Humanity’s Last Breath is. Abyssal is a monolith of a record that progressively gets more brutal, menacing, and downright nihilistic over the course of its running time, wholly saturated with the feeling of utter dread and impending doom. This album exists to dominate and obliterate the listener, and to that I say, mission accomplished.
What a name Humanity’s Last Breath is. One wouldn’t be blamed for assuming, without hearing a single note, that this would a non-stop blasting, double bass, slam riff, gurgle fest like so many other recent death metal albums as of late. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Abyssal is the sound of all things extreme, borrowing elements from many sub-genres of the metal underground but seem keenly fixated on Disso-death, Black Metal, sludge, Industrial, and dare I say even dubstep. The sonic savagery found here can has much more in common with Meshuggah, Ion Dissonance, or Ulcerate rather than the current crop of technical death metal bands in the scene. No slam riffs or even a familiar verse/chorus/verse song form with an obscene amount of dissonance, topped with a double dose of groove make what HLB’s brand of brutality unlike most other releases in recent memory. I’m not even sure how to properly classify their sound aside from just…heavy. With that distinct difference in mind, it certainly makes the band more interesting, as expectations are subverted and blurred, not easily classifying HLB into some obscure sub-genre or forcing them to bend to certain elements.
First off, goddamn, these are the most down tuned axes I think I’ve ever heard. Songs like “Abyssal Mouth, “Like flies”, and “Rampant” are so low it makes me question if actual notes are even being played within the first thirty seconds. Often the guitar seems to be used almost as an effect rather than solely for note choices. But when the note choices do come in, they certainly pack a punch. The riffing from HLB mastermind, Buster Odeholm, is borderline otherworldly. The rate in which he mixes lows, highs, melodic, and dissonance all at a breakneck pace while keeping the whole thing cohesive and bowel rumbling heavy, boggles the mind. While we could argue ad nauseam whether there is such a thing as “too low”, upon first listen, the sound of the guitars was jarring to say the least, which I can only assume was the intended effect.
That said, this guitar sound is certainly in-tune (pun intended) with the title of this album because alongside the egregious use of dissonance, the combination of these elements, as well as the death growls, ominous clean singing, and torrent of blast beats, make Abyssal…. well, downright Abyssal! Moreover, the use of droning and abrasive tones throughout the record certainly adds to the overall chaos and oppressive atmosphere. At key moments these drones, and harsh high register tones really add an extra depth to the dread running throughout the record.
Of note is the vocal performance. It would have been totally acceptable for the vocals to be a non-stop barrage of low-pitched grunts and growls throughout, but instead we are treated to a unique mixture of death metal vocals, occasional screams, and even unnerving “clean” singing. The opening three tracks on Abyssal “Bursting Bowel of Tellus,” “Bone Dust,” and “Fradga” all feature all these elements in spades, including parts with an effect on the vocal track themselves, further adding to the vocal diversity. Closing track “Dodgud” uses a sort of vocal droning, almost Gregorian chant style that is downright chilling and serves as the perfect end point for the record.
There are a few instrumental tracks like “For Sorg” and “Being” that add a momentary moment of fresh air by adding an ever so slight change in pace from the constant sonic beat-down of the rest of the tracks. Even still, these instrumentals are monstrously heavy and at times fast, so much so that I found it a tad confusing as to why they were even included. The tracks are a little half developed but seem to ultimately serve as a sort of buffer since they are a bit less fatiguing than the rest of the main songs. After repeated playthroughs I found myself skipping past those, but on first listen it did help break up the album a bit.
Abyssal is some of the heaviest, ugliest, certainly most unsettling metal I’ve heard this year. While it’s unrelenting nature is a bit much in one sitting, repeated listens have proved fruitful as I’ve come to hear the depth of what HLB is trying to achieve, especially with the addition of the instrumental versions included in with the record. Even on a beautiful late summer day, listening to Abyssal makes me feel like the dark clouds of Armageddon could be just over the horizon, laying waste to all that we know and love. It’s disturbing and challenging music to be sure, but in an odd way, surprisingly addicting. I’m going to need a whole serving of Wham! after this one.