A quiet, strained voice whispers into your ear as a single guitar begins playing a new but comforting tune. The voice intensifies and additional instruments join until an entire band has joined in a triumphant chorus of guitar leads, howling vocals, and a tasteful rhythm section. Before there’s a moment to celebrate the tempo doubles and you’re launched into a dizzying set of thrash riffs, froggy bass tone, and frenetic drumming. This is how Horrendous decided to begin their fifth LP and first in five years, Ontological Mysterium. The hype around this release is obviously reaching fever pitch for fans of the band due to the extended time between this and their last album, but also because the band has been putting out consistently great progressive death over the last decade, and the time is oh so right for them to return. I’ll be frank right from the jump: Horrendous is a band that I have often listened to but failed to fully ‘get’ over the years. This isn’t a lack of understanding of what their appeal is or why they’re so beloved, it is simply my own shortcoming in this matter. This was the year, however, that I devoted myself to fully grasping the band and really sunk myself into their work. After multiple listens of their discography, I too became fascinated with what they’d do next and now appreciate the ground they’ve covered thus far.
I’ve a somewhat historical vendetta against what I feel are pointless intro tracks that feel out of place on a metal record. Some are winners and other times the tone that they are attempting to set never appears on the album that follows in the slightest. In the case of the aforementioned intro track “The Blaze”, this is one that works. Elements that surface throughout the rest of Ontological Mysterium are teased in quick composition that feels like an actual introduction and not just a quick little tracklist enhancer. This genuinely feels like a death metal intro track that acclimates the listener to the album without resorting to a sound that never appears on the songs that follow. I know that’s a bit of a rant, but I think it matters in this instance as there is a lot of variety on Ontological Mysterium and setting a table for that is a pretty tall order but Horrendous delivered.
Many of the things that you’d expect from a Horrendous record are here, and are here a lot. And that is of course what I was hoping to hear. The uniquely fried vocals of Matt Knox, the irrevocably jazzy bass lines of Alex Kulick, Jamie Knox’s chameleon drumming, and Damian Herring’s foundational guitar work and vocal support: it’s all here. This is the potent mix of entities that create this world of Horrendous that we all know by now. However, on this outing there have been some tweaks to the formula, some evolutions to the sound. Some of this comes from embracing the jazzier side of things like on “Aurora Neoterica”, a small-but-meaningful interlude between “Neon Leviathan” and “Preterition Hymn”, a pair of songs which would be wildly jarring if they didn’t have this connective tissue between them.
A pitfall of the overarching ‘progressive’ music genre, in my opinion, is that albums often feel like long introductions to a final, all-encompassing track. While this can be pretty cool when done right, to me this approach feels a little played out. Thankfully, Horrendous have balanced their track list with a bit of both on Ontological Mysterium. There are moments when it feels as if a song is building toward something greater in the end, but each song embraces its time in the sun and doesn’t throw itself on the altar of the greater good. In fact, I’d say one the finest tracks on this new record is the second on in the playlist, “Chysopoeia (The Archaeology of Dawn)”. This is a song that I found myself coming back to over and over and over. Remember when I said that a lot of prog albums put the thesis song at the end? Well, Horrendous basically does the opposite as this is the longest and most diverse song on the record. It jumps off with pure thrash riffing and then dips into jazz, heavy metal, and more. It’s a veritable showcase for that band and features some big tribute moments to bands like Cynic (check that riff at ~2:30), but slowly morphs these ideas into something that’s indelibly their own.
While I won’t get into the semantic discourse about the difference between ‘progressive’ and ‘prog’, Horrendous definitely feel like they are in the former where all ideas get a fair shake and abiding by arbitrary boundaries is something that holds no interest to them. What appears to be far more in their wheelhouse is broadening the scope of what they’ve already done without throwing what they love to the wind in the process. The core of what has come before is still present but there is more air in this album brought about by more vocal diversity, moments of respite, and new influences seeping into their songwriting. “Neon Leviathan” is a pure balls-to-the-wall death metal song, but the vocal phrasing and layering, as well as the frenetic bass lines and soloing, make this a track that really only Horrendous could write and perform. “Cult of Shaad’oah” falls in the same camp with its wild pace, unhinged vocals, and memorable riffs that are carried by the entire band. There are plenty of surprises on the album too, which I’ll not spoil as they’re just too fun to discover on your own.
Ontological Mysterium is a brilliant welcome back for Horrendous, who have been gone for far too long. Metal has long been associated with anger, hate, and the general range of negative emotions, but this is the kind of album that serves as the antithesis to that sentiment, at least in tone. This is a playful album. Yes, there are moments of sonic heaviness, but that never overshadows the fact that this is a band that enjoys playing this music and wants us to have a good time along with them. This approach might not be for everyone but it’s genuinely refreshing to feel a lightness, at least in tone, to a record that goes as hard as this one does. These thirty-seven minutes – a perfect length for a record like this – are a good time and a high point for progressive death metal this year. The musicianship is among the best in the genre, the songs are diverse and captivating, and the sense of adventure that comes through with each listen is frankly invigorating. Horrendous, we’re glad you’re back.