Blood Incantation Conduct a Cosmic Death Metal Opus
So, I’m on my fifth spin of Starspawn, the new album by Denver-based death metal band Blood Incantation, when I accidentally hit Command-T in my iTunes, triggering that glorious gift of a legal acid trip iTunes Visualizer to open. Suddenly I’m watching three pitch black holes rotate around each other, tendrils of light shooting out and getting sucked into the circular voids, which shrink into nothingness and explode into more brilliant circles of light and color, then start bending toward a new set of black holes … and the process begins anew.
Somehow, this piece of software was able to visually reproduce Blood Incantation’s whole thing — their trippy grand concept about the material world collapsing and our souls getting sucked through black holes by unseen astral beings until our inner selves and the universe collapse into an infinite expanse of stardust, an eternal cycle of creation and un-creation that we can only perceive through the dimensional stargate that is the human mind.
That’s my interpretation, anyway. Another listener might have seen those floating black orbs as licorice gumballs, or dilated pupils spangled with colorful sperm or something, instead of a visual analogue to this lyric from Starspawn’s title track: “Cosmic seas of fire traverse the void of space / Bringing human souls from another world / Manipulate the species from inside / Watch them fight and kill / To build the mega-cemetery urns of the planet.”
Point is, Starspawn is an album deep enough to get you thinking about stuff like how music and lyrics can reinforce each other, and how we read meaning into notes and chords. Blood Incantation’s Sumerian-space-mysticism trip is more than just a lyrical conceit. It’s so intertwined with the music on Starspawn that even a piece of software programmed to respond to auditory changes in speed, texture, dynamics, etc., figured out how to encode it visually.
We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil's bargain
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
-Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”
Blood Incantation guitarist/vocalist Paul Riedl is an intense dude. You probably have to be to swing like five projects at once (including Spectral Voice and Abysmal Dimensions, with his bandmates in BI) while running a respected tape imprint (Woodsmoke) and holding down multiple jobs. He’s made funeral doom (Merkstave) and ambient guitar records (Hanging Moss), black metal (Leech) and drone (Elu of the Nine). No matter the style, every Riedl project inhabits the same philosophical universe. “All my bands are trying to explain to people that their empty human lives are meaningless,” he says, “[that] nature is more important than humanity, only space is real, mysticism is more important than materialism, and that civilization/statism is the ultimate religion and the deepest cancer in humanity.”
In the Blood Incantation worldview, we are part of a cycle of destruction and reconstitution that replicates endlessly across dimensions — a process called samsara in Indian religious traditions. It’s referenced in the first line of Starspawn (“Falling ... Fall through the stargate within / But is this the first or the last time again?”) and the last line (“No death as known ... Only doorways ... You are the stargate”), a kind of formal cycle of its own.
Some might take comfort in samsara and its eternal opportunities for renewal. Riedl sees it differently. “Mental liberation is a constant struggle … Most people need the traditional worldview of the baby Jesus making a li'l snowglobe just for you and your ultra-special little species, and on the other side people are just as scared of reality by believing that nothing mystical or esoteric has ever happened and everything is just molecules and natural phenomena … Unfortunately, both sides of the fence are part of the same confining structure, keeping your mind trapped. There is no why, there only is.”
Despite a long tradition of really interesting death metal themed around esoteric sci-fi spirituality — Nocturnus, Cynic, Mithras and Decrepit Birth come to mind — Riedl is resigned to the fact that most Blood Incantation listeners won’t get the concept behind Starspawn.
Harder to miss is what a perfect medium their music is for their message.
The band’s debut EP, Interdimensional Extinction, was a bumpy journey to death metal’s outer reaches, with alien grooves and morphing riffscapes that felt far less fussy than most death metal songs this complex. Starspawn broadens the EP’s interstellar path a thousandfold. The song structures are more free-flowing and more contoured; the emotional ambit is wider. Take “Hidden Species (Vitrification of Blood Part 2).” The song starts with an imperious riff to rival Immolation, moves into almost Krautrock repetition to ratchet up the tension, then alternates between hallucinatory space auroras and planet-devouring doom, all before circling back to the killer riff that birthed it all. Another aesthetic samsara.
It’s standard practice to talk about how songwriting and musicianship impact an album. Starspawn makes an argument for arranging as equally important. Riedl and guitarist Morris Kolontyrsky are two strands of the same DNA double helix, playing in atonal counterpoint one moment, then glomming together for a savage unison riff the next. Drummer Isaac Faulk is the MVP on the arrangement front, revving Starspawn’s rhythmic warp drive with an endless arsenal of fills and colorful percussion; bassist Jeff Barrett fills in the gaps, smearing the low end with inventive fretless lines. It all coheres into songs that seem to have sentience. That’s nowhere clearer than Starspawn’s opener “Vitrification of Blood (Part 1),” which sounds like it’s alive, learning and growing stronger, as it charges through its 13 minutes.
Pete deBoer’s production job helps, too. He recorded the whole thing in analog, almost entirely live with minimal overdubs/punch-ins, and only reverb added digitally. Why record straight to tape? “It sounds better, is more fun, requires your band to be sicker/tighter, and yourself to be a more precise player,” says Riedl. “What's not to love? Sure, there are imperfections, but that's called reality, dude. You are full of imperfections, as is everything that has ever materially manifested.” You can hear the music heave from tempo to tempo on “Chaoplasm” as if the whole band is breathing together, feel the subtle timbral shifts of each part of Faulk’s drum kit. Getting your soul harvested by the Anunnaki is probably awful, but it sounds pretty fucking great.
So, duh: The riff is the basic unit of heavy metal. There are a thousand ways to write one, and a thousand bands that do it well. Blood Incantation are the first in a while that make me think about the function of a riff. It’s not that the excellent riffing on Starspawn is wholly original — I hear some of the spiraling abstractions of Demilich, the strange harmonies of later Death, even some Mastodon in the prickly instrumental sections. It’s that the songs use riffs as jumping-off points for development, not as ends in themselves. “We don't really like music that we don't find interesting, so why would we play it?” explains Riedl. “We also don't deliberately write ‘long’ songs just for length's sake — it's just the story of the riffs and how they develop.” It’s like Blood Incantation are writing sentences with notes and guitar chords instead of words. Their music has its own syntactic logic.
Do you have to understand the subtle complexity of Blood Incantation’s compositions to think they rule? No. You can tell that after one listen; it wasn’t until 10 listens that I realized how deep the structure of the title track was, how rhythmic and melodic patterns introduced early on kept echoing later in the song in altered forms. In the same way, you don’t have to be down with samsara, or the “ancient aliens” conspiracy theory, or the latest science on the multiverse to appreciate the creative cosmology at work in the band’s lyrics. Especially when it’s howled by a heavily reverbed Riedl, and sent screaming through the album like some slow-motion comet trailing bone dust and mucus behind it.
I will say that learning to detect the musical nuance — and reading up on some of the belief systems that Blood Incantation write about — will make you love Starspawn more. Because it becomes even clearer that every element of this record has a purpose. The music complements the lyrics; the album art illustrates the overall concept; even the titles of the guitar solos illustrate the album’s themes (personal favorites: “Bodily Entanglement Disengaged” and “Ominous Harbinger of Die-mensions Passed”). It’s a metallic Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total artwork” that integrates different forms into one cohesive presentation.
First and foremost though, Starspawn is a badass death metal record — no modifiers needed. Blood Incantation aren’t hung up on being progressive or avant-garde. They’re comfortable pushing death metal’s boundaries from within, making the sickest music they can make, and letting the genre just … be. In Riedl’s words, there’s no alternative but to accept “the innate truth of eternal oneness that you are nothing and everything, as is everything else. The EVERY-THING is NO-THING. That's ALL there IS — and there IS no WHY, there only IS and the IS is NOW and the NOW is ALL.”
A PSA from Riedl: “Metal isn't about websites. I hate internet metal nerds, so no, I don't see myself as sacrificing anything by not engaging their pretentious nerdery … fuck the internet metal scene, fuck eBay hawks, fuck Discogs shitheads, and INFERNAL HAILS to all true old-school diehards and supporters of real underground shit — see you at the show!!!” Pick up Starspawn from Dark Descent here.