February 8, 2017

The Ominous Circle - Appalling Ascension

By Nate Garrett. Before I ever heard a note of music from rising, unidentified Portugal death metal collective The Ominous Circle, I saw their promo photos. The band’s aesthetic is essentially the overlap section of a Venn Diagram composed of Portal (frightening shrouds masking their possibly disfigured/monstrous faces) and Hooded Menace
By Nate Garrett.

Cover art by Davthvs.

Before I ever heard a note of music from rising, unidentified Portugal death metal collective The Ominous Circle, I saw their promo photos. The band’s aesthetic is essentially the overlap section of a Venn Diagram composed of Portal (frightening shrouds masking their possibly disfigured/monstrous faces) and Hooded Menace (leather jackets, an unspoken vibe that they can and will kick your ass). The aforementioned bands are two of my favorites in the genre, so I was already sold. That being said, you can’t always judge a book (or band) by its cover. In this instance, however, my preconceived expectations happened to be accurate. On their debut album Appalling Ascension, The Ominous Circle play vicious, genre-bending death metal that is somewhere in the realm of a less frenzied Portal or a more chaotic Hooded Menace, with plenty of their own unique brand of evil interwoven throughout.

The album begins with the lengthy intro "Heart Girt with a Serpent". This track consists of otherworldly chants and howls set to a background of nasty feedback and droning guitars. While this is a powerful approach to setting the mood for the oncoming storm, this intro could stand to be more concise. Trust me when I say that it’s sometimes tricky as an artist to find the balance between propagating a vibe and keeping the subject engaged, and I’m not against this sort of thing. It could just stand to benefit from being shorter.

The first actual song, "From Endless Chasms", blasts furiously out of the gate with a straightforward death metal assault. The lead vocal is comprised of traditional but notably aggressive low-end to low-mid roars and growls. This vocal approach always fits the fluid nature of the music, which encompasses a plethora of closely related styles over the course of the album. The band also experiments with several ancillary vocal approaches, including dual-tracked and gang vocals. Historically speaking, these methods run the risk of producing distracting or even corny results, but The Ominous Circle use them to great effect. When the secondary vocal enters, the more high-end shrieks complement the lead vocal, and make the entire experience even more horrific.

Photos by Daniel Sampaio.

The guitar work is truly special, that much is evident. Amongst the chaos of blast beats, a simple dirge is established, and it becomes an infectious hook the likes of which is lacking in the majority of the genre. This hook transforms into a triumphantly evil passage of guitar harmonies. This section delivers tragedy amidst the horror, providing an emotive quality also rarely present in music this crushing. All this glorious guitar work eventually collapses back into sheer madness. As the song concludes, the lead guitar hook returns and it’s clear we’re dealing with something remarkable. This opener is a revealing cross-section of the rest of the album, and among other things, it establishes the fact that The Ominous Circle excel in the songwriting department. Though this music is as savage as it gets, it is not lacking in catchiness and natural flow.

Up next is "Poison Fumes". Here the band showcase just how good they are at slowing things down. Rather than focusing on grinding and blasting, this song draws its strength from a primal, tribal source. The space between notes allows the vocals to shine. I’ve always preferred death metal singers that sound more monster than man. I prefer to hear noises that sound like they’re coming from something that must be locked in a basement between takes rather than a guy delivering a standard performance, and this fits the bill. He sounds violently fucking pissed off. So does the rest of the band. Sections of this song even dabble in what could pass for beatdown hardcore, but only the furthest reaches of the evil end of the spectrum. Enter the aforementioned gang vocals. Rather than coming across like some sort of wannabe NYHC street crew, these guys sound like the most initiated sect of a cult, attempting to summon some ancient Lovecraftian horror in a dripping cavern. The guitar solo on this track introduces us to some stunning skills reminiscent of Morbid Angel’s Trey Azagthoth. Like Trey himself, the lead guitar player’s performance writhes with shrieks, squeals, and shredding atonal runs, but also plenty of moments that are memorable and downright catchy. This is no easy feat for any guitarist, and it is on full display not only on this song but the entire album.

Photos by Daniel Sampaio.

Track four is a tune entitled "Ateh Gibor Le-olam Adonai" (plug this into Google if you want to devise your own theory about the significance of that title). This is another interlude/intro type track, a dirge equal parts mournful and terrifying. The drummer relies on his massive floor tom accents, a technique he utilizes with great success throughout the album. To me, this track serves as an intro for the next song, but I understand why it is a separate track. I enjoy the cultivation of dread and menace, but some listeners may prefer to cut to the chase. Granted, at under 3:00 this interlude is more concise and purposeful than the intro to the album. This leads us to "A Gray Outcast", possibly my favorite track on the album (though "Poison Fumes" is another contender). The song opens with blasting drums, and light speed riffs that seem to be more clear in the mix than in previous tracks.

On that note, I’ll take this opportunity to address my only legitimate gripe with the album, the occasional misguided production choices. This drummer should be proud of his incredible performance, don’t get me wrong, but there are times when the drums are so prominent in the mix that they mask what the guitars are doing. Admittedly, I’m partial to guitars, and this issue seems to gradually correct itself over the course of the album. Part of it could also be the low tuning of the guitars, as the lower and faster the riffs, the harder they are to hear. In this particular case and later in the album, the faster riffs are more in the treble range, which seems to work better within the context of the mix. None of this is enough to detract much from the album.

Moving on, the majority of this song consists of death metal by way of lumbering sludge. These riffs wouldn’t be totally out of place on an Eyehategod album. Imagine Morbid Angel at their slimiest experimenting with the New Orleans sound. The vocals are particularly brutal, and seem to be a bit more up front in the mix - an intimidating approach. One of my favorite moments on the album comes when the music drops out and the vocals sustain, fully exposing the singer’s Portuguese accent. This summons nostalgia of listening to Sepultura as a youth, and the fist-clenching intensity that Max’s voice evoked. It has become even more apparent at this point that the band combines many elements of heavy/extreme music, but their approach is distinct and makes sense. The Ominous Circle’s identity is fully established.

Photos by Daniel Sampaio.

Track six, "to En", picks up the pace. The intro flirts with D-beat over a pummeling undercurrent of double bass. Eventually it explodes into full blown D-beat verses alternating with a pummeling, floor-tom-accentuated slow section. Again, the band expertly and seamlessly utilizes both lightning-fast and funereal paces. Just when I thought this album had it all, the singer unleashes his first and only Celtic Frost-style “AGH” to welcome perhaps the most pummeling section of the album. This standout song is concluded after another masterfully morbid guitar solo. The only flaw in this song is a moment when a single guitar, promptly harmonized by a second guitar, furiously introduce a section only to be overshadowed by the hi-hat. I must cry foul on this. No one wants to listen to hi-hat over guitar, biased or not. As with similar issues before, it’s not a grievous enough infraction to ruin the song by any means, but someone should have put their foot down on this.

"As The Worm Descends" is as apt a title as any on the album. This song fades in - yet another example of the band finding ways to make every single song special - culminating in a primitive groove. The bass and kick drum are locked inseparably under the terrifying swarm of guitars. Later in the song, my favorite trick in the drummer’s arsenal returns: the familiar dual floor tom explosions. The guitar solo on this track strays from the beaten path, with the introduction of a wah pedal. As if things weren’t chaotic enough, The Ominous Circle continues to raise the bar. They don’t stop upping the stakes on the album closer. "Consecrating His Mark" is a culmination of everything appealing (or appalling) about this album, that somehow manages to introduce even more insanity. This 10-minute odyssey is the perfect way to end such an epic album.

Appalling Ascension is almost a perfect album. It would be, if it weren’t for a couple of preventable missteps on the production side. This is a matter of taste of course, and just to be clear, this album is still damn close to being flawless. It will haunt listeners with its stunning balance of unpredictability and familiarity; chaos and cohesion; blending of styles and strong sense of identity. The band lives on the edge of the line of “too much,” both in their aesthetic and music, but they never cross that line. This results in a constantly maxed-out threshold of all things bad ass. The Ominous Circle is something special, and Appalling Ascension is as strong a debut as any band could ever hope to have.

(One note about the production: this review is based on a high-quality Bandcamp download of the album, as the vinyl is not yet available. If the issues I have with the mix are not present on the vinyl, I will gladly retract them.)

Nate plays in Spirit Adrift and Gatecreeper.
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