With their debut album Knots of Abhorrence, Ch’ahom has changed the face of war metal by looking deep into the past.

Release date: November 3, 2023 | Sentient Ruin Laboratories | Bandcamp

War… war never changes.’ Originally stated by Ulysses S. Grant, and made particularly famous by Ron Perlman in Fallout 3, these simple, plain-spoken words often come to mind every time a new war metal band hits a certain level of popularity. Forged originally by such bestial units as Blasphemy and Beherit, the subgenre has long been noted for direct, unyielding assaults that aren’t necessarily rich with dynamics. It’s a thrilling genre, but differentiations between bands have been a bit hard to find in the past. Lately though, against the wisdom of ages, war metal has started changing. More broad-minded bands like Gravesend have challenged the notion of war metal’s limitations well enough, and it was only a matter of time until a band like Ch’ahom arrived to completely shatter the framework.

Ch’ahom has been kicking around for several years now, and even though Knots of Abhorrence is their debut album, the band feels extremely sure of themselves. At their roots, Ch’ahom’s sound is unquestionably war metal. Long stretches of the album hinge on blasting drums, churning but simple riffs, and gruff, blunt growls and rasps. But where the band has differentiated itself is their stated love of the weird end of 90’s technical death metal, the dynamics of 70’s progressive rock, and an obsession with Mesoamerican themes manifesting through traditional instrumentation.

In fact, it takes a minute before album opener “Xibalba” shows any signs of metal at all. Silence leads the album, from which drums and flutes eventually emerge, setting a damp, ancient, jungle-like atmosphere before the first distorted chords begin ringing out in the distance, coming in rapidly for the kill. Blasting assaults trade off with more measured, stomping riffs before a borderline psychedelic shift. At this moment, one of the band’s greatest strengths emerges by way of a reverb, tastefully weird guitar solo. I would feel safe saying Ch’ahom has some of the most gripping, interesting senses of guitar leads in war metal as a whole, and they regularly show that strength in warped solos or queasy, intriguing leads.

Traveling deeper into the dark heart of the album, multiple instances of melting, spidery riffing emerge that invite comparison to bands like Demilich. The slightly dissonant riffs and their jagged timing make for a cool counterpoint to the more primitive, simplistic progressions that anchor the blast-driven riffs across the album. This sense of dynamic in the riffing does wonders in making the album feel constantly violent and off-kilter, staving off the sameness that so many other war metal bands fall prey to. With several ritualistic, traditional interludes present to introduce each of the first three tracks, Ch’ahom never once risks breaking the atmosphere they have crafted while also never running the risk of said atmosphere growing stale. By the time the dramatic end of “Path to Ixtab” has arrived, these musicians have more than proven themselves some of war metal’s most intriguing acolytes going.

And all that’s before we hit the album’s true centerpiece, being both parts of Knots of Abhorrence’s title track. At this point, the album starts injecting gripping doom metal elements into their sound, deploying their traditional interludes mid-track, and going completely progressive in structure. The album becomes more psychedelic and formless at this point, and it leads to some impressive and even beautiful moments as the band charges along. Seriously, the final minute or so of “Knots of Abhorrence I” is one of my favorite segments of any metal album this year. “Knots of Abhorrence II” leans even harder on the Demilich/Timeghoul influence, abundant in gross and mind-bending riffs that forge ahead with wild abandon until the final coiling notes ring out and fade into silence at the album’s end.

It’s perhaps an abrupt way to close out an album, but it suits the overall weirdness Ch’ahom thrives on throughout. It’s a bizarre album, but in a way that’s certain to pull listeners back in for further spins. It helps that the production is outstanding for a war metal album, being plenty clear to hear every filthy riff or ringing, clean lead while being nowhere near sterile or overprocessed. The mix is admittedly pretty bass heavy though, so this is definitely an album better left to headphones than a car stereo. The only real disappointment for me is that the band’s publicly expressed love of groups like Yes, Camel, and Genesis really only shows itself structurally instead of being readily apparent sonically. But as expertly crafted as the atmosphere is, I can’t honestly say that making those influences clearer would have improved the album.

War metal, as it turns out, has changed, and Ch’ahom deserves some major applause for their genuinely intriguing spin on the genre. Knots of Abhorrence handily joins the ranks of Tzompantli’s grim, doomy Tlazcaltiliztli or the technical death/flamenco mashup of Impureza’s La caída de Tonatiuh as some of the greatest Mesoamerica-themed metal I’ve heard in recent memory. The atavistic brutality of the metal goes hand in hand with the moments of ritualistic atmosphere perfectly, and Ch’ahom’s approach is a perfect balance of progression and regression. They’ve crafted an album that boldly pushes war metal forward while drawing heavily from the distant past, and I am very happy to be listening to it here and now.

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