Death Metal Battle Royale Round 2: Sinister’s Cross The Styx vs Deicide’s Legion

 

This Round 2 battle pitches two albums similarly intense in death metal rhythm guitar playing. Sinister, and Dutch death metal in general, were inspired by genre developments in North america, and perhaps in no small portion by Deicide themselves. However, where Sinister would go on to release albums of similar or, as considered in certain quarters, even better quality, Legion is Deicide‘s indisputable pinnacle never rivaled again in the genre. How do these death metal cousins fare against each other?

1. Riff Logic and Cohesion
Cross The Styx:
A bass string in perpetual motion provides the backdrop against which Sinister play out much of their heavily syncopated dark death metal. Cross The Styx is an album of riffs tightly stitched together: an automaton-like picking hand shatters with tremendous violence any semblance of a longer narrative into finely delineated staccato phrases that drift through a groove part Suffocation and part ‘Sacrificial Suicide‘. Then, with equal calculation and instinct, like a rock climber looking for the next foothold from which to stage his ascent, the band mutates each isolated phrase into a slightly skewed variant on its predecessor. Songs themselves are recursive, composed neatly of two or three cycles of the same set of riffs, with occasional provision for lead guitar and symphonic overtures, but this predictable writing style of evolution by micro-increments, done in a tonal palette empty of all optimism and levity, otherwise fosters a persistent tension and atmosphere throughout Cross The Styx. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: Legion gives lie to the dogmatic assertion that death metal has to be completely absent of verse chorus structure and speed metal influence to be considered effective. Both are a big part of what makes this album such a force of nature, thus proving that more so than actual techniques themselves, it is their intelligent application that makes for memorable metal. The Hoffmans harmonize almost exclusively in jagged half phrases, but also in their arsenal is a method that has never been replicated in the genre to the best of my knowledge: when not playing the same riff, one guitar frequently switches to a black metal-like tremolo picked melody supplementing the palm muted staccato phrases coming out of the other channel. Thus, short-form, atonal explosiveness is simultaneously leavened with a dark, Gothic musicality (for the kind of melody I’m referring to, hear ‘Revocate The Agitator‘ and play C2-C#2-D#2-C2 on this tool), a brilliantly intuitive writing trope not nearly enough attributed to the band or explored within the genre at large. (Points awarded: +1)

2. Melodic Contiguity
Cross The Styx:
Cross The Styx occupies a niche in the midst of speed metal, purely structural death metal (Deeds of Flesh, Suffocation), and melodically ambitious European death metal. The latter of these attributes is sometimes overwhelmed by the ever-present percussive bludgeoning, but it is a subtle component in the band’s craft, shifting songs almost imperceptibly on their axis, as if by power of suggestion. Also, despite using abundant speed metal techniques, Sinister avoid the major caveat of all speed metal, the preponderance of static filler: there is neither shortage of chugging grooves on Cross The Styx, nor does the band shy away from the occasional sharp break in chord/color progression, atonal as it may be, but it never translates to wasted energy; a consistently pendulating musical drama infiltrates these songs, a constant resizing up and down the dark musical register, and yet more proof that death metal can be a theatrically explosive genre in the purest sense, without resorting to conventionally theatrical bells and whistles. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: On Legion, melodic contiguity, or the indispensability of any one section, however small, of a song, is intimately tied to the rhythms played by Steve Asheim. Therefore, any two successive parts, even when they don’t appear to share a logical melodic relationship, may actually share a rhythmic relationship instead, bolstering the other’s momentum and overall impact. Hear how, for example, on ‘In Hell I Burn‘, the tremolo picked melody feeds into the Iron Maiden-on-speed gallop for no outwardly discernible reason; in reality, however, the tremolo-picked melody does a few dry runs at first, always interrupted by Asheim’s fills at the very end, until finally it launches into the chorus. Under the hood, there is delayed release of tension and a building of momentum at play, an example of broken-riff sequences frequently heard on the album. (Points awarded: +1)

3. Role of percussion
Cross The Styx: Sinister drumming is some of the most pulverizing in all death metal, swinging wildly between red hot blastbeats, riding the groove, and a thrashier battery. Admittedly, it does not vary at all outside of these techniques, and is somewhat reactive to the riff as dog-whistle, but Cross The Styx is not the sort of death metal album of large spaces to call for inventive drumming; it is tightly-knit, fast and violent, and the drumming lives up to that end of the bargain. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: Steve Asheim was officially disclosed as the main songwriter in Deicide long after their seminal work, but in the light of that revelation, his performance on Legion assumes even greater significance. Unlike Aad Kloosterwad on Cross The Styx, mostly content to follow the lead of the guitars in predictable patterns, Asheim conducts these songs on a granular level, with extreme stamina and ambidexterity, “timing each drum hit to the guitar strum” in a deluge of offbeat time signatures, and perhaps even solving the perennial conundrum of the drummer-songwriter in death metal: when riffs are of a chopped and percussive nature, and the drumming underneath a near mirror image, it is more than likely that the drummer has a pivotal say in overall musical direction. (Points awarded: +1)

4. Progressive aspiration
Cross The Styx: What is progression? Is it the riff constantly evolving to form a song of diverse parts working in harmony? Is it static-monolithic riff sets that work in tandem to create a narrative? Or is musical progression a non-analytical quality that leaves the listener in a different mental space from where he began? The riffs on Cross The Styx are anything but static-monolithic, but as mentioned earlier, and not without a sense of irony, these riffs, virulently alive though they may be, are boxed together, in the same order, into two or three neatly parceled cycles. The result is a bit of an antinomy: Cross The Styx is progressive at a lower level, but songs ultimately only recapitulate previous highs.

Edit: I’m generally undecided on this, and seeing as how my personal bias won out in favor of Legion in a similar situation, I will give Cross The Styx a bye too. (Points awarded: 1)

Legion: Legion is guided by Glen Benton’s massive roar and as with the debut actively uses choruses to sink its hooks in. At times, there are breakaway sections as bridge or to end a song, but despite the brutality on offer here, Deicide were very consciously making death metal anthems. Is that enough to label Legion not progressive? By my own definition, probably, and yet there is such perfect balance to this instrumental cacophony, such spontaneous yet visionary mixing of harsh and not-as-harsh (but still fucking harsh!) textures that I cannot begrudge it its progressive stripes. (Points awarded: +1)

5. Success as an album of songs
Cross The Styx: There are few albums in death metal as consistently punishing or just plain hellish as Cross The Styx. It is more expressive in a lateral sense than Legion, with higher tuned guitars and a wider range of tones. One could even say that Cross The Styx is a more scenic album than Legion; scenes of ash and brimstone, granted, but which even the occasional glimpse of speed metal influence cannot detract from. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: Legion belongs to a cadre of early death metal albums written explicitly to be memorable and song-oriented. Which should not be construed as pandering in any way, but rather that these musicians grew up with vastly different music than what they ended up playing, and that they were able to translate the accessibility – to a certain attuned mindset, obviously – and musicality of those styles into an almost incomprehensibly brutal paradigm. Legion is chock full of death metal classics singable in an almost vulgarly-gratifying way, and yet there is not a second to cause cognitive dissonance in the listener. This truly is serious death metal for the serious death metal fan. (Points awarded: +1)

6. Ideological/Philosophical significance as death metal
Cross The Styx: A demonic album in sound and word, the very musical depiction of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and The Hellbound Heart/Hellraiser in particular, Cross The Styx makes one wonder what prompts young people in the prime of life to make music so obsessed with pain and suffering, so empty of even the vaguest compassion. Young rebellion, sure; a desire to exceed the standard of brutality expected of the genre, definitely. But can that be the catch-all reasoning to explain the spiteful and unequivocal rejection of mass anodyne culture on display here? No whiff of political grandstanding, no maudlin sentimentality, nothing but lovingly detailed tableaus of tormented flesh from some interdimensional nightmare, and still as powerfully captivating and intimidating as upon release. Has death metal ever needed to be anything else? (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: Legion is more anti-God than pro-Satan, and though Glen Benton’s ire is almost exclusively directed at Christian dogma, it is impossible to listen to this album without being stirred in a similarly adversarial spirit, regardless of religious denomination. It is a spectre that has haunted extreme metal for the longest time, a whisper rising from dark corners to mock viciously at whatever compartmentalization allows one to enjoy this music at one time yet kneel in supplication, for reasons of faith or political expediency, before some deity at another. It is perhaps inevitable that the thinking individual becomes more conservative with age, but I admit to being not a little confused when I see some metalheads aligning themselves with orthodox religion in their fight to preserve the culture of their lands. Their position itself is perfectly tenable from the perspective of nationalist politics; after all, religion shares a strong anthropological connection with culture. But at least I, as yet, have been unable to reconcile this convenient, mealy-mouthed dichotomy with the fiercely individualist quality of a Legion. It does not even matter whether the religion is Semitic or of the Orient; there might be more chaff to eliminate in one belief system than another, but there’s generally some wisdom to be gleaned from all. But once you move out beyond academic-ontological curiosity or any other cynical use you may have for religion, you are confronted with the reductionist dilemma of God, a consciousness fundamentally and immeasurably greater than you, and sentient in an all-encompassing way too, and this formulation and the necessary subservience that comes with it is inherently at odds with Legion‘s philosophy. Is this materialist thinking? Perhaps, at the very apex, but I prefer to think of it as a form of positive egoism perfectly in sync with the metalhead’s lot to be caught between spaces, to willingly enter the slipstream, to test the waters, and then wanting nothing more than to swim against it and out of it. (Points awarded: +1)

7. Emotional resonance
Cross The Styx: Keeping this album’s hateful stature in mind, then, how can one consider it in terms of emotional resonance? Assuming musical quality of a high order and a general theme are already established, the best way to do this is to let the music paint mental pictures for you. Drawing from your repository of experience and memory, without resorting to blatant nostalgia, goes a long way in fleshing out initially obscure outlines and bringing these pictures to life. Christian doctrine informs us that the difference between purgatory and hell is the same as that between the light at the end of the tunnel, and complete and utter resignation. If this be so, then Cross The Styx most vehemently takes place in a hell carrying none of the romantic notions attached to Satan as tragic antihero. Here, whips crack, flames rise, and flesh sizzles, in what can only be a condemnation of man’s fundamentally irredeemable nature. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: An alternate reading of what this album means to me can be found on the Round 1 post. Legion can never be anything but a personal record to me and so deciphering it in sterile language feels insincere. But words are only so much wasted breath, and therefore I will simply say that in its presence I can still transform into someone I may not always want to be, but someone I am most comfortable being. (Points awarded: +1))

Verdict: Cross The Styx is one of the true great death metal albums, but it is its bad luck to be paired against what might be the greatest. Maybe hearing it before Legion was a bad choice, because there are few records that can open for that album and stand their ground. In any case, the voting seems to overwhelmingly agree in favour of Legion. Legion goes through.

Current tournament bracket

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