Review / Allegaeon – Damnum

Many bands progress from a single starting point, slowly pushing their envelopes forward to consolidate a unique sound. Others evolve and progress their sounds despite instability. Proving the latter works is Allegaeon, purveyors of a furious blend of melodic and technical death metal. Their line-up has been something of a revolving door over the course of their career, but the perseverance has paid off with their sixth, and finest, studio album to date: Damnum

It’s difficult to know where to begin with singing the praises of this album, and I promise that’s not hyperbole. The playing of every single member has stepped up a notch from immediate predecessor Apoptosis, with new drummer Jeff Saltzman proving phenomenal on the kit. Riley McShane’s growls have taken on an utterly filthy guttural edge that is a genuine delight. He also appears to be capable of delivering his lyrics at an astonishing pace – so fast it almost sounds like he might be rapping – while growling, shown by the speed of his delivery in sections of ‘The Dopamine Void Pt 2’. Elsewhere, his clean vocals offer a refreshing dynamic contrast when they get their well-deserved airtime on songs like ‘Into Embers’. 

More bands across the metal spectrum, but especially in the world of death metal, should play about with dynamic contrast. Allow the listener’s ears room to breathe by having things get slower and quieter, and then bludgeon them when the heaviness comes back. Allegaeon have had this trick down from the word go, and it has served them well ever since. From the quieter opening bars of ‘Bastards of the Earth’ to the gorgeous penultimate track ‘In Mourning,’ the contrast of soft vs loud strengthens the album as a whole. ‘In Mourning’ is itself a superb display of Greg Burgess’ skills on the acoustic guitar, and the grandiose album closer ‘Only Loss’ is made all the stronger and heavier for following it.

Both the dynamic contrast and McShane’s clean vocals also add to the emotional heft of the album. Damnum is possibly the most emotive of Allegaeon’s output, with the lyrical focus shifting away from scientific matters like Dyson Spheres and the advent of AI towards more personal topics. On songs like ‘Of Beasts and Worms’ or ‘To Carry My Grief Through Torpor And Silence,’ inner pain and grief become the focus. From ‘Of Beasts and Worms,’ we have “This is the place where I rest my bones/and the river that cleanses me runs alone/to be there where my spirit longs/and sleep in soil forevermore.” While from ‘To Carry My Grief…’ we have “Save me, someone, please/I cannot bear to carry any of this pain anymore/My aching body strains, fading and wasting away.” This is quite a departure for the band that has previously, and loudly, declared “ALL HAIL SCIENCE.” The reason for this shift in focus is given on ‘Called Home,’ showing a narrator mourning for a loved one who committed suicide. “By keystroke you wrote, “I was called – called home.”/The dissolution of brotherhood brought by a mist of red – I am home.” That Riley explicitly lists someone in the liner notes who was carrying a great pain and has now departed this world is further confirmation. Whether all the lyrics on the album are in some way a reference to this tragedy I can’t say, but those songs that are clearly expressing McShane’s grief ground the album with that emotional weight. My heart goes out to him, and his friend’s loved ones.

These lyrics are bolstered by musicianship that is frankly off the charts. Lead guitarist Greg Burgess is on absolutely top form, clearly having great fun shredding and trading solos with rhythm guitarist Michael Stancel. This dual guitar attack is supported by a strong bassline, and the occasional solo, from bassist Brandon Michael. The talent of all three is astonishing, displaying not only Burgess’ progression as a player from the early days of the band, but an incredible internal chemistry. Burgess is now the sole original member remaining in the current line-up, with Stancel having fully settled in since joining for 2014’s Elements of the Infinite, and Brandon having proved his worth after joining in for 2019’s Apoptosis. But there appear to have been no downsides to this relative instability – the playing on Damnum feels like something the group has been building towards since its inception, as if Burgess, Stancel, and Michael were the original lineup and have truly come into their own over time. Not only is their playing tighter and more focussed than it’s ever been, but the compositions are also more melodic. This emphasis on melody helps boost the emotional nature of the lyrics, but allows for some delightful experimentation, such the guest piano slot on ‘The Dopamine Void Pt 1’ courtesy of Tommy Bonnevialle. None of this is to denigrate the group’s previous incarnations: I’ve been a fan since Fragments of Form and Function. It’s just that this line-up completed with the arrival of new drummer Jeff Saltzmann, feels as though it has truly galvanised Allegaeon, spurring them to new and impressive creative heights.

Plumbing new emotional depths and pushing their playing to new heights makes Damnum both a clear frontrunner for Album of the Year, and the finest Allegaeon album to date. Here’s hoping that, after the previous instability in their lineup, they can capitalise on this new energy and push forward to even greater heights in the future. 

Damnum is out now on Metal Blade and can be ordered here.

Words: Nick Dunn

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