A Sinister trek through the last fifteen years

One of the most rhythmically expressive of all death metal bands, Sinister‘s career trajectory is widely assumed to have flatlined after classics like Cross the Styx, Diabolical Summoning, and Hate in the 90s. Frequent line-up changes, to the extent that ex-drummer Adrie Kloosterwaard remains the sole original member and on vocals at that, have prevented the band from evolving or even settling on a consistent sound. Fans unanimously dismiss the two albums fronted by Rachel Heyzer, but how does their work stack up since?

Afterburner (2005): Afterburner upon release was widely heralded as Sinister‘s rebirth following the uninspired Creative Killings and Savage or Grace, but the passing of time makes one see it in a different light. The first album to see Aad Kloosterwaard relinquishing drums for vocal duties, and Alex Paul playing all guitars, Afterburner is partly a welcome return of the malevolent air so pervasive of the band’s recordings up to Hate, but at times it is also brighter-sounding than anything the band has done through its use of heavy metal tones. Interestingly, the band uses devices both new and antique to in their pursuits: while a clinkingly insipid “post” influence inveigles its way into at least two songs, the experiment is thankfully discarded post-haste elsewhere for the labyrinthine ‘Presage of the Mindless‘, essentially a recapitulation of the strengths of the classic ‘Awaiting the Absu‘. Opener ‘Grey Massacre‘ reaches even farther back in time for inspiration, culminating quite seamlessly in the dirge of the Dies Irae played as a slow tremolo-picked melody. Afterburner is certainly theatrical – and death metal can be a legitimately theatrical genre, an appellation not normally applied to it but there is real drama in its many tinkerings of the musical register at the micro level – but its mix of influences does not capture the imagination of the experienced metal listener who knows where to find what he seeks without resorting to a hodgepodge of unrelated sounds.

The Silent Howling (2008): The worst album in the Sinister discography, The Silent Howling panders to a mainstream crowd, and therefore by association reneges on the dark complexity that first earned the band their bread. In fact, aggressive percussion notwithstanding, it is incorrect to even call this album death metal; the notes that once evolved through steady ferment into an intimidating architecture housed with devils from an alien dimension are fully substituted with the blockheaded speed metal charge of bands like In Flames and Soilwork. Even more egregious are mewling stabs at atmosphere harking to dilutory tendencies like shoegaze, postrock, and sludge that have proved a bane to extreme metal in the last twenty years. There are no redeeming qualities to The Silent Howling; it is a truly bad album, both artistically and integrity-wise, and by all rights should have buried Sinister under a rubble of their own fickleheadedness.

The Carnage Ending (2012): The Carnage Ending is an instant improvement on The Silent Howling which while not something worth shouting about from the rafters certainly paved the way for the incrementally better albums to follow. ‘Gates of Bloodshed‘ opens much like ‘Carnificina Scelesta‘ once did, and what ensues at least restores some semblance of the band’s once-fierce dignity as  a death metal classic. Succumbing somewhat to the Stillborn-syndrome, a reference to the Malevolent Creation album with the infamously muffled drums and down-with-flu production, robs these songs of some of their power, but also dresses them in an obscure mysticism reminiscent of the genre’s heyday and not just in the regular caverncore sense. Unfortunately, the album loses steam midway through, the Gateways To Annihilation-styled midpaced stomp of ‘Oath of Rebirth‘ ushering in an unimaginative slog through predictable chromatic progressions and equally obvious changes in tempo. In hindsight, one can level the blame for the misguided experimentation of the previous two albums at the departed Alex Paul’s feet. The Carnage Ending sees the introduction of a guitar duo whose resume includes bands like Supreme Pain and Fondlecorpse, bands that at least remained firmly girdled against the genre’s underbelly. Accordingly, this album carries, perhaps unconsciously, the ethos of both those projects, but at least it is without the cringe factor of The Silent Howling, and therefore can now be viewed against the backdrop of new members finding their feet amid the Sinister sound.

The Post-Apocalyptic Servant (2014): The Sinister sound has always been part Deicide, part atonal brutality like Suffocation, combined with an individual flair for dark melody. The chief influences remain on The Post Apocalyptic Servant, but those influences are now referenced in slightly different contexts. The change-on-a-dime syncopation of Legion is replaced with Serpents of the Light-styled tremolo runs, while the grinding detonations of Despise the Sun have come to be almost ubiquitous. The application of that dark melody, however, is admirably subtle and creeps up on the listener just when he begins to surmise that there has been a cumulative loss of identity, thus saving The Post-Apocalyptic Servant from being one among countless other brutal death metal albums. Sinister have always registered as unremittingly violent death metal, in reality and in the genre fan’s subconscious; this album, while not breaking the mold, sees them reoccupying that niche after a long time.

Syncretism (2017): This album sees the most deliberate that Sinister have ever been. By introducing synthesizers as a key songwriting tool, the band revamp their entire approach to writing death metal. Working in disparate harmony with the guitars, yet also of necessity imposing a tempering influence on them, the synthesizer has opened a far wider melodic space than has ever been available to the band. The occasional homage to Deicide still peeks through, but overwhelmingly riffs that once developed in discrete, claustrophobically assorted clusters now have a distinctly “hummed” aspect to them; which shouldn’t be taken to mean something as crude as Aad Kloosterwaard actually singing out melodies for his guitarists – maybe he does for all we know – but rather that writing intense metal riffs can be approached in either a quasi-involuntary, “love of lava” fashion, or as a slow-burning act of pensive execution. Syncretism tips the scales decisively in favor of the second, the rabid syncopation of yesteryear often organically making way for long-chained passages in the Necrophobic vein of blackened death metal. More importantly, this album hints at a band trying to revive some of the dark musical mythology of their most vital work; the mechanics are different, but the Gothic spirit that once lurked in the shadows now assumes the spotlight without resorting to kitsch, thus proving that an old hand can seemingly deviate from tradition on the surface while remaining true to it in essence.

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