Six years ago, a duo of zealous acolytes emerged from the damp north of England. On their mission to spread the gospel of the Greatfather Mollusca they unleashed three albums in three years, each boasting eight innovative hymns of blackened death metal.
Uniting oldschool grindcore and progressive metal with their death metal foundation, Slugdge forge riff-driven, forward-thinking albums with evocative lyrics, each more refined than the previous one. At the same time, the band manages to retain a critical eye for developing their sound further on each release.
Despite receiving attention from many publications, Slugdge stayed independent and largely a critic's favorite with a small but devoted fanbase, even three albums into their career. Now, however, their time has finally come. After signing to Willowtip Records in 2016, the band eagerly kept working on the follow-up to their 2015 release Dim and Slimeridden Kingdoms and with Esoteric Malacology it has finally taken form.
But the road to this release wasn't an easy one as the band had to face challenges and difficulties. Those familiar with Slugdge's catalog know that previous albums had a distinct sound, reminiscent of swedish 90s death metal bands owed to the characteristic buzz of the HM-2 pedal the band employed for their songs. Increasingly ambitious and technical songwriting soon made the HM-2 hit its limits and a change of equipment was in order.
Difficulties in marrying the new sound to the band's trademark qualities and health issues for one of the band members made the making of Esoteric Malacology the band's longest creative process to date with nearly three years of work going into the new album.
The wait, however, couldn't have been more worth it.
Opening with War Squids, Slugdge reaffirm that they have a hand for writing songs that are catchy in every regard. Melodic guitar-leads alternate with heavy hitting riffs that are propelled by blastbeats and double bass as vocalist Matt Moss presents his lyrical prowess delivered through an infectious chorus and memorable vocal cues such as choir-like vocal layering. As always, the humane sound of the drums belies the fact that they are programmed.
On songs like Crop Killer the band further explores their progressive side with muted guitar-strings and haunting clean vocals between the crushing verses and a tapping section in the second half of the track.
Right in the middle of the album is arguably the oldest track on the listing, Slave Goo World. Originally released at the beginning of 2016, the band was still using the HM-2 to write the original version. Later that year it was re-released as a first peek at the band's new sound. I remember being skeptical towards the change in sound, suspecting that the distinct griminess of the HM-2 might have been more vital to the band's sound than I had expected, but the album version of Slave Goo World blew those doubts away. With detailed vocal layering, mountainous riffs and expertly accented guitar chords Slugdge made Slave Goo World one of the most intense tracks on the album that furthermore displays just how much more their songwriting has matured.
If there is one song that falls out of line, however, it is Transilvanian Fungus. Despite not a bad track by any stretch, some of the extended pauses impede the song's pacing and the background vocals during the chorus are situated awkwardly within the mix. The meandering nature of the song makes it appear as though the band wasn't quite certain where to go with it.
On the other end of the spectrum, Salt Thrower is certainly the most outstanding song on the album. The title paying homage to the now defunct legendary death metal outfit, it is Slugdge's crowning achievement. After a brooding intro, prodding rhythms build the bridge to a meditative first verse. Somber clean vocals alternate with grievous growls and as the instrumentation initiates its ascent the lyrics paint the picture of a bleak existence.
suspended in infinite blackness
so numb, agony is no distraction
contempt for life replacing sadness
Is this clarity or madness?
temporary energy and matter
the will to live is irrevocably damaged
a listless spirit wants to leave the world
vital essence grinding to a halt
we are all at fault
Following an atmospheric section the guitars regain their strength as the song grows ever more ominous, leading up to a soulful, harmonic guitar solo. Crushing riffs set in as the song becomes ever more oppressive. The track climaxes with pummeling drums and massive guitars as the lyrics leave behind a feeling of defeatism. The sophisticated songwriting on Salt Thrower as well as the grim honesty of the lyrics are a testament to the evolution of Slugdge's sound, making it the best song the band has released to date.
Afterwards, album closer Limo Vincit Omnia puts a definitive and memorable end to Esoteric Malacology with its wailing guitar melodies, more choir-like vocals and a grand and triumphant sound.
Even though Limo Vincit Omnia is a thoroughly traditional Slugdge song, studying the lyrics to the rest of the album reveals a noticeable change in the band's lyrics. Though figures like Rhaexorog and Yeth'Shuul still find their mention, the band is now a lot more blunt in delivering their messages. Whereas Salt Thrower allows a glimpse into some of the feelings that vocalist Matt Moss has been dealing with, Putrid Fairytale brings back the topic of the threat of nuclear weapons and Crop Killer comments on the technocracy and dependance of humanity.
Musically, the oldschool grindcore influences that were present on earlier albums have made way for more pronounced progressive metal leanings and Carcass-style melodic death metal segments, most likely due to the fact that more of the songwriting duty fell to Kev Pearson this time around caused by health related reasons on Moss' side. The shifting and evolving song structures show that Slugdge's sound has matured even further and with a fine hand for layering instruments and vocals the results are more impactful than ever before.
The production is cleaner than before but the dirty, sludgy sound that was previously supplied by the HM-2 has mostly been retained. With more experience under their belt, the mix on the Esoteric Malacology is more spacious and accommodates the instrumentation much more comfortably than before.
Slugdge have once again proven themselves to be one of the most important metal acts currently active as they define the essence of accessible extreme metal. Making it worth the wait, Esoteric Malacology elevates the band's sound to a new level of sophistication, earning them a breakthrough that was long overdue.