Vancouver-based technical death metal crew Archspire have been active since 2009, but gained attention after their previous album, 2014’s The Lucid Collective, mainly due to the incredible speed and technical skill of the musicians on that record. It was fast, violent, and hectic, and predictably divided opinion over the issue of whether the music was simply so technical and polished that it lacked any soul. On their third full-length album Relentless Mutation Archspire seem to have engaged in some critical self-reflection, enabling them to create one of the most stunning albums in the entire genre to date.
I don’t want to understate the case here: With Relentless Mutation, Archspire have released an album that can go toe-to-toe with the best albums in this genre’s back-catalogue; from Necrophagist’s Onset of Putrefaction to Obscura’s Cosmogenesis, Relentless Mutation can hold its own. The album identifies all the key elements of a modern tech-death album, and then ratchets them all up to 20; it’s an album that’s so over-the-top in everything it does that it strangely enough ends up just being a total blast. This will almost certainly be the most dizzyingly fast and technical album you’ll hear all year. But for many of us out there, that’s not necessarily a huge draw – particularly for those of us who like their death metal raw with a bit of heart and soul. Thankfully the band seem to have spent serious time making sure that the riffs and melodies that comprise the bulk of the album are actually memorable and interesting.
The opening track ‘Involuntary Doppelgänger’ is an absolute beast, but the guitarwork at times seems to draw as much from Neoclassical Metal as it does from death metal, with sophisticated, memorable riffs, scales and melodies. ‘Human Murmuration’ features pummeling downtuned riffs and unsettling lead guitars; it also shows off vocalist Oli Peters’ unique style of harsh growls, which seem to emulate Tech N9ne as much as Corpsegrinder. His frenetic, dizzying speed of delivery matches the intensity of the rest of the musicians, and what that means in the final result is an album that feels even more head-spinningly swift, because you don’t have one musician slowing the pace down. His style is sure to divide opinion, but it’s certainly memorable and, in my view, benefits the album. Oh, and the song also features a tasty quick bass flourish before launching into the most devastatingly heavy slam of the year. Fuck.
The frenzied guitar solos that pepper the album are memorable and well-composed, without overstaying their welcome. On songs like ‘Remote Tumour Seeker’, the band really display their knack for balancing catchy, memorable riffs, crushing slams and brief, electrifying guitar solos to create a song that’s just an adrenaline-fuelled trip from start to finish. Closing track ‘A Dark Horizontal’ ends the album with a bang, with frenetic, dissonant guitars and inhumanly fast percussion, broken up by a delicate and surprisingly well-executed semi-acoustic middle section, before ending on one final explosion of chaos, dissonance and a dizzying guitar solo. Archspire made the excellent decision to write 30 minutes of all killer, no filler tech-death genius without any padding. It’s the perfect length for an album of this intensity, and somehow manages to feel satisfying while also leaving me wanting more. I must also take the opportunity to highlight the stunning, disturbing album cover, created by the very talented Eliran Kantor – a brave and unusual artistic decision considering this is a genre known for its sterile production and CG-rendered album covers.
The mixing and mastering on this album is also superb: it retains a relatively organic sound, and successfully avoids sounding over-produced or sterile; I particularly have to note how well the bass is mixed in, as it’s given a very prominent role. There are only seven tracks here, comprising a total of 30 minutes of material, but to go through every track would be a fruitless endeavour; there’s so much detail, so many layers upon layers of instrumentation and compositional thoughtfulness that I would be here all day. But here’s the more general point about this album: On the one hand, it ratchets up everything about technical death metal to 20, so far beyond any other album I’ve heard in recent memory that in this sense alone it’s a breakthrough; On the other, the maturity and thoughtfulness of the band’s approach to songwriting means that despite the incredible amount of detail contained within every song, they all remain memorable and interesting beyond just their immediate wow-factor. This is a lesson to so many other bands in the genre about how you do this style justice.
And that’s really what stuck with me about Relentless Mutation. The album is so dazzlingly technical and heavy that at times I almost had to laugh; not at the music, but because it was such a towering, exaggerated spectacle of tech-death’s fundamentals, that it just becomes an absolute riot to listen to. It’s the kind of album that you listen to with the biggest grin on your face all the way through.
The songs are so mind-numbingly heavy and technical, condensed into such concise structures that the whole album triggers a massive endorphin-rush, such is the almost absurdity of the compositions on display; but alongside this, the songwriting is sophisticated, mature and detailed in a way which actually rewards repeated, careful listens and reveals depths which so few albums in this genre have. This is a rare technical death metal record which manages to be dazzlingly brilliant at everything it does, and even those like me who approach albums in this genre with some skepticism ought to pay attention.