Death metal and darkwave join forces to invoke total gloom in Unsouling‘s debut Vampiric Spiritual Drain. Check all positivity at the door.

Release date: January 26, 2024 | I, Voidhanger Records | Facebook | Bandcamp

Metal and synth music. Despite the distance between their roots, the two styles go together like chocolate and peanut butter. From Iron Maiden to Nocturnus, and all the way to modern projects like Abstract Void, there’s never been a shortage of bands entwining metal and synths down to their very DNA. Sometimes it can come across a little corny, but it’s almost always very cool, and it’s a stylistic blend with plenty more ground to explore. And with their debut album, Unsouling has boldly set off down one of those paths. Namely, a very dark one.

Hailing from Minnesota and signed to the incomparable I, Voidhanger Records, Unsouling is the work of one man going simply by A.S. Already known for his work as a member of Feral Light, A.S. established Unsouling to go in a bit of a different direction. This debut album, evocatively titled Vampiric Spiritual Drain, aims to fuse rough, lo-fi death metal and some traces of black metal with the synths and atmosphere of darkwave and goth rock. And for a first album, Unsouling has done an excellent job making that blend work, even if the balance definitely isn’t 50/50.

In fact, it would be easy to assume Vampiric Spiritual Drain is a straight ahead metal album at first. Opener “The Wolf and Survival” kicks off on atmospheric chords building to a churning death metal riff and harsh vocals. Beyond some horror movie-ready organs sprinkled throughout, and a dip into goth crooning and effects-laden guitars deeper in, it’s a fairly strait-laced lead off. But second track “The Ladder of Broken Backs”, which I need to credit for just being a great title, immediately kicks off with gothic guitars and synths underpinning A.S.’ caustic voice. It makes for a paradigm shift that assures that promise of darkwave and goth rock is no window dressing. Those dark vibes and death metal thrust duke it out in friendly competition for control pretty much from this point forward, often blending in ways that would be glorious if they weren’t tailor-made to feel painful.

More than anything, it’s the sheer atmosphere of Vampiric Spiritual Drain that proves its greatest strength. True to the name, the music throughout feels like it’s sucking the light out of whatever location the listener may be in. The metal riffs throughout are universally depressive, matched up by more gothic arpeggios and the icy synths that lurk around many of the album’s corners. Aiding that, the production is raw and unhospitable, though certainly not unlistenable, and it works wonders in creating an alienating environment for the music to course through.

There are moments of majesty sprinkled throughout, such as the ending of “Floating Key” or the synthy section that emerges late in “The Wolf and Ascension”. But by and large, Unsouling’s MO here is to create a feeling of desolation, and A.S. absolutely succeeds in that. Be it the DSBM-informed savage riffing or the moments of nothing but cold synths (see “Taileater” or the end of “The Wolf and Ascension”), Vampiric Spiritual Drain lives up to the promise of it’s title and just feels, well, draining.

Being a debut, there are still a few kinks that could be worked out. The riff craft is very strong, but not every line hits perfectly. In an album so deeply atmosphere-focused, that may not be an issue for some listeners such as myself, but if you’re coming at this album looking for nothing but riffs, it may not always be your thing. And by all means, this is a very dark album. Even for people who thrive on more negative music, it’s not going to be for daily play given the misery it presents. But honestly, the negatives I could choose to piece together don’t amount to very much compared to the positives.

From the first moment looking at that stunning cover art to the final fade out, Unsouling has crafted quite an experience with Vampiric Spiritual Drain. What few lesser moments may emerge are completely choked out by the foggy, suffocating atmosphere A.S. has crafted, and overall the music is just as excellent throughout. I’m very curious what Unsouling may do in the future, but the project’s worth is well proven already. Vampiric Spiritual Drain is an album destined to join the rotation for many people going through cold, rainy days and dark, gloomy nights. And every so often, an album like that is exactly what a sad soul needs.

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