Altarage – Worst Case Scenario (Doomentia Records)

Friday, 29th September 2023
Rating: 9 / 10

When traversing to the realm of highly experimental death metal, it’s best to resist preconceived notions of typical meaty death metal. It is experimental, after all, so there’s an incalculable level of an ‘expect the unexpected’ type of vibe. Portal is the definition of this, and for many, the high water mark of unpredictable sonic mayhem. Acts such as Abyssal, Adversarial, Ulcerate, and Imperial Triumphant are several that have earned a prominent seat at this chaotic table. Another is Spain’s Altarage, who have been formulating dizzying compositions of blackened death metal furor defined by layer upon layer of dense cacophonous aural anarchy. This scribe usually attributes the region of Spain these fellows hail from – the Basque Country – with the football institution Athletic Club, famously known for exclusively utilizing and recruiting players from said Basque Country since 1912. Athletic Club and Altarage have something in common – a noble dedication to their unique identity. Not one release is very similar to the other, yet, all contain signature elements that are singular to their music.

Altarage have traversed quite the acclaimed path, with their first three albums being some of the most distinctive and utterly sweltering concurrent albums yours truly has come across in decades of obsession with heavy music. Conversely, though filled with some standout tracks, 2021’s Succumb contained entries that lacked coherence, almost going a bit too offbeat for their own good. Last year’s Sol corrupto was much more of an eerie atmospheric piece – Altarage really should be hired to write a horror film soundtrack – that was a significantly enjoyable departure. They’re now back with a more ‘traditional’ record via Worst Case Scenario, which was actually preceded by the Cataract EP, of which contains a different mix of the song of the same title (also on this record), along with two exclusive tracks that served as a haunting appetizer for this main course.

Whereas Succumb was a long 1-hour plus jaunt, including the 21-minute “Devorador de mundos,” Worst Case Scenario is a more compact 36 minutes and change. The reduced run time results in a more urgent and ultimately tighter album, allowing the sinisterness to engulf the senses more pointedly. “Enigma Signals” sets the tone with a creepy off kilter lead guitar to lure the unsuspecting into a haze, soon to be met by a wall of thickly droning guitars and blood curdling low register groans. Carefully placed stop start riffs are layered with consistently buzzing rhythms, powerfully pushed further by booming drums. This feeling continues on the “Case Full of Putrid Stars” to further conjure the foreboding atmosphere that represents Altarage at their most potent. Tempos change on a dime, paired with abrupt stops leading to slightly varying restarts that pummel without relent.

A rumbling distorted guitar representation of a thousand hornets approaching is a high point in “Cataract,” which is mixed differently with the EP version of the same song; this version sounds a little less fuzzy and cleaner, but with added low end. Each version stands on its own, being two successful reflections of the same core idea. If looking for a long form composition, it’ll be found via the blackened sludgy leanings of “Gift of Awakening.” This mammoth is highlighted by malevolently downpicked rhythms, bridged by a noisy hum/lead combination that manifests frightful tension, before finishing the job courtesy of a crawling, slowy vanishing riff. The ending of Worst Case Scenario is exemplified by malicious chaos, whether that be the brief but frightening “Verdict” or the howling sledgehammer culmination that is “Exhaust.”

Where Altarage stumbled ever so slightly on Succumb, they’ve fully returned to their most alluring and complexly vile within Worst Case Scenario. This isn’t, nor ever will be, an easy band for many to jump into, and like the best experimental music, it takes a few listens to fully grasp the nuances. Once Worst Case Scenario hits, it hits exponentially hard, filling out to be a delightfully disturbing experience that will reward those who allow it to drag them into the bleak and unforgiving shadows.

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