This isn’t so much a contest as a bunch of observations on two obviously related death metal albums. Onward to Golgotha is Incantation‘s magnum opus and rightly resides at the very peak of the genre. The proliferation of the internet over the last twenty years has allowed this classic to slip out of the murk of the underground into mainstream death metal consciousness. Which shouldn’t be taken to mean it has been co-opted ironically by the memester generation – Onward to Golgotha‘s heaviness and downright unwelcoming aesthetic precludes it from any such bastardization – but rather that simply more people today seem aware of its reputation as the standard by which all death metal is to be measured.
Prelude to Apocalypse, Disciples of Mockery‘s sole album, features three-fourths of the line-up that played on Onward to Golgotha, but for the most part, this album has receded into obscurity. John McEntee is on record as saying that the blueprint of the Incantation sound was laid before Onward to Golgotha, back in the demo days, when people like Paul Ledney and Will Rahmer passed through the band before settling down with their more renowned bands (Havohej/Profanatica/Mortician). Knowing the trajectories of all parties involved, one is inclined to agree with McEntee, but by the same token, it has to be said that Onward to Golgotha is the most muscular of Incantation albums, dripping with physical menace, and played with rare ferocity. It can’t be too unreasonable to suggest that Craig Pillard, Jim Roe, and Ronny Deo had something to do with it.
Apart from being the first death metal album along with Dawn of Possession to fully rid itself of all allusions to speed metal, what else makes Onward to Golgotha special? At various times over the years, this album has felt like both a brutal but essentially simple primer for the release of violent energies as well as a musical maelstrom of elder voices clashing and colliding and flaying the hapless listener caught in its midst. Onward to Golgotha is drenched in a ponderous low-end which with the dissonance that almost wholly constitutes it belies the intelligent composition at its heart. Few albums in the genre anticipate developments yet to occur within the song as well as this; what therefore on first listens feels like a patchwork quilt of vaguely related riffs rendered in atonal mode is actually an intricate relay network that takes numerous changes of groove and tempo in its stride, and delegates control with no loss of momentum whatsoever.
One can argue that Incantation, freed from harmonic shackles, can move with greater ease among conflicting voices, that the likelihood of an ill-advised transition thus standing out is greatly reduced; that may be true and is the caveat of the Incantation template as evidenced in the hands of lesser bands, but this, at least on Onward to Golgotha, does not detract from just how memorable and self-assured these songs are. Intuition suggests the use of coloring notes and a subconscious awareness of the possibilities extended and indeed the limitations imposed by the chromatic register help bring this music into the realm of the knowable. This duality – if duality isn’t too much of a cuss word – is elemental to the album: its marriage of opposites, of the simple and the symphonic, the abstract and the comprehensible, of the warring instincts within the human heart that make order from chaos and reduce order back to rubble with unequaled turpitude, make it the very ideal of what death metal should be, both in sound and the conceptualization behind it.
Disciples of Mockery took their name from the first line on Incantation‘s ‘Blasphemous Cremation‘, further grounding expectations of what this project would sound like. Incidentally, Mortal Throne of Nazarene, the successor to Onward to Golgotha, was the last album Pillard and Roe played on; that album saw greater use of doom and industrial-electronic textures, both elements which find continued use in the band’s sound till date. Mortal Throne of Nazarene is also without the exquisitely honed groove that lent Onward to Golgotha its rounded aspect, instead dealing for the most part with jagged shapes and higher octaves that occasionally evolve into the wisp of a fevered neoclassical melody. How much Pillard and Roe had to do with these developments is up for conjecture, especially in light of the former’s participation in similarly themed projects over the years (Evoken‘s Caress of the Void, Methadrone, Womb, Disma), but Prelude to Apocalypse certainly feels like it resides more in a post-Onward to Golgotha space, one where atmosphere has begun to establish precedence over strict riff logic.
In pursuit of that atmosphere, Disciples of Mockery take a leaf out of the Paul Ledney playbook, using profuse repetition during both tremolo runs and doom segments, the latter in particular giving Jim Roe the room to showcase his tumbling, thunderous, and completely instinctual percussive work, an often undersung aspect of what elevated Onward to Golgotha above the demos. The most salient takeaway from Prelude to Apocalypse, however, is that doom and sludge are only ever a step away for music fashioned from the same atonal family tree as Incantation; in fact, I’d go as far as to say that they are an imperative for music of this kind, that their absence implies promise unfulfilled, but when done with skill and prejudice entails no loss of intent or ugliness. As virulent and nihilistic as this form of death metal can get, there is also an unshakable sense of theater and dark tragedy about it, small details in the interstices that can be realized more vividly only when the music is housed within the suffocating confines of a dirge.