Hearing Mortem‘s The Devil Speaks In Tongues, it strikes one just how powerfully dramatic good death metal is. Every motif, every riff, and every progression aims to build up to a rousing conclusion with no room for ambiguities. There is no self-conscious coyness to be found in it; whatever subtlety exists lies in its lack of guile and in its sincerity. Good death metal deals in bold emotional strokes. It is immediate and urgent in nature, and demands its audience’s instinctual involvement. The thematic content of death metal perforce imparts a certain dark energy to the music, but beyond merely sounding “dangerous” through surface denomination, quality death metal makes an abiding point of making every punctuation in its vocabulary a raw and vital punch to the gut.
Wagnerian would be an accurate way of describing what Mortem do on The Devil Speaks In Tongues: as metaphor but also as a spiritual interpretation of the composer’s work. There is glorious bombast to be found here, perhaps best captured in the mental image of a staircase of steep gradient and with distinctly uncomfortable, larger-than-normal intervals between individual steps. Each jump between these steps is the analogue of an escalation or a scaling down in musical and emotional intent. Intent, in fact, is the correct word to be used in this context; the intent to formulate a vision of death metal and to hammer it out with an ironbound conviction.
The long-time listener has become so inundated with this music that rare is the occasion when he sits down and takes adequate note of these minutiae. But just this once, put away everything else that concerns you in the moment, and actually hear The Devil Speaks In Tongues, or indeed any of the other classics. Pay attention to the constant interplay of ideas but also to how elementally interlocked these same ideas are in the greater sense. You will discover that each musical crest or trough represents the emotional currency of what Mortem set out to achieve and, if I may say so, they achieve it with unerring consistency. More importantly, there is no allowance made for superfluous, pandering additives; it is a narrow corridor that Mortem walk and a tight-knit vision that they strive to execute, but they do it with a fanatic’s faith in his beliefs.
This unprepossessed, dramatic character, along with the will to motion described elsewhere, is the litmus test of all good death metal, and, when you think more on it, of all real metal. Its honesty in confronting reality head-on makes it seem tawdry and obnoxious to outsiders, outsiders who are far too used to a world of dissembling and doublespeak, even in art, a medium that would be transcendent in an ideal world. Great death metal, however, aims for the heart with little concern for decorum; it is intuitive but it also speaks a coherent, musical language that gives voice to those intuitions with cruel precision.