“The Doctor is in”
Back in the ’90s, the American Midwest was home to some of the most individualistic death metal in the underground. DIY in aesthetic and genuinely creative as a spill over from that spirit of independence, bands like Order From Chaos, Phantasm, Xenomorph, Cianide, Impetigo, Embalmer, Morbid Saint, and Timeghoul made death metal ranging from the compositionally intricate and ideologically uncompromising to one rife with lowbrow brutality inspired by horror movies; just reading those names is bound to cause an upsurge of adrenaline in the avid death metal fan, appropriately so, too, because this was an era when death metal was honest and still in touch with its roots, and when the possibilities must have seemed endless. Dr. Shrinker – part of which band would go on to form the infinitely creepy Phantasm – belonged to the same undeclared, unheralded movement, and played a staccato, speed-metal influenced take on splattery death metal. Contorted Dioramic Palette is their very first full-length in the almost-thirty years since formation, but fans in the know rightfully regard their demos – the full-length sized Wedding The Grotesque demo from 1989, and The Eponym demo from 1990 – with the esteem they deserve.
Contorted Dioramic Palette for all purposes is an album from that era; three songs (‘Tools Of The Trade‘, ‘No Way To Live‘, and ‘Mezmerization Of A Corpse‘) in fact have been rerecorded for this debut. The four new songs patently demonstrate that the chief songwriters have not yet divorced themselves from the songwriting mindset that must have been prevalent then, which might lead to accusations of datedness. But what really makes a band dated? Before applying the label to a band’s efforts, one has to grasp the writing philosophy behind the music. Contorted Dioramic Palette certainly doesn’t belong in the present day – and more power to Dr. Shrinker for that – and yet it is more relevant than virtually everything out there today. Because these songs care about the individual phrase, because they debone the composition in the manner of all old bands, and because they massage and revivify the flesh within to animation before putting it all back together, Dr, Shrinker seem analogue and alive like only music at the time of its provenance can.
Speed metal, as mentioned, constitutes the dominant technique on this album. Place a guitarist brought up on a speed metal diet in a guitar shop, and watch the picking motion his hand makes. The chug-as-placeholder punctuating with emphasis in a chord shape and drum beat, is a defining element of this style of metal, giving it a loose, impromptu, jam-like feel. I understand how this can be construed as filler, where large swathes of a song exist simply to get to the next melodic island of note; it is the reason why albums like Dawn Of Possession and Onward To Golgotha are applauded as watersheds for death metal, seeing as how they replaced the so-perceived filler with actual substance relevant to the song. But death metal did not burst into life out of nowhere; it had to transition through its fair share of birth pangs, and the speed-death paradigm was an indispensable preceding part of the process.
Dr. Shrinker come from just this interesting evolutionary crossroads, combining the technique – both orthodox and left-field – and narrative prowess of classic speed metal bands like Slayer and Voivod with the progressive structures of nascent death metal. The incredible turnover of riffsets qualifies this as riff-salad extreme metal, but let that not be used as criticism; this is storied metal tradition at play, done with aplomb and consummate balance. The riff-as-virus nature of speed metal is inherently at odds with the phrasal, long-form quality of the Incantation/Immolation brand of death metal; what is fascinating to observe is how effortlessly Dr. Shrinker consign this difference to the background, and invite the listener into their parlor of terrors. And then keep him there.