Wednesday 1 April 2020

Scarab - Martyrs of the Storm (2020)

Country: Egypt
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

For a band who are clearly elevated by their musicianship, especially by an impressive drummer and a pair of excellent guitarists, it was the vocals of Sammy Sayed that grabbed me first. It wasn't because of his choice to go in the deep growl direction, as he's decent but frankly little varied across a ten track album. It was the way he delivers that growl that's notable. Right at the outset, with the opening title track, it's almost an echo of a chant, ably setting the scene as an underground temple mid-ritual, given that the band sing about ancient Egyptian culture and spirituality.

If that didn't conjure up a comparison with Nile, I'll raise it anyway, but I should add that Scarab are actually from Egypt, so it's their own culture that they're exploring. Like Nile, the sound is dense and deep. Guitars are kept low in the mix, so that we hear the bludgeoning drums first with vocals and other instruments adding textures.

I usually prefer my death metal old school or melodic over brutal, but this album is immersive. Part of that is our need to pay attention to catch what the guitars are doing behind the drums and the bass, but a lot of it is just how interesting they are once we focus in on them. When they emerge to play, the guitars are impressive. One is vicious, slicing through the air like an evil weapon. The other is intricate, with a penchant for neo-classical that veers into sheer shred on Kingdom of Chaos. I believe the vicious guitar is that of Tarek Amr and the shred comes courtesy of Al-Sharif Marzeban.

Mostly, they stay at least partially buried in the mix because everything is ritualistic here. Bloodmoon Shadows, for instance, thrives on that chanting mentality from earlier and the guitars match those vocals with textures so that we start to wonder about what ritual we're becoming part of. Are we to conjure something up or lay someone to rest? The song titles suggest both.

Sayed has to have one of the rhythmic voices I've heard in death metal. That mindset continues, even getting bouncy on Circles of Verminejya. His work on this song is as catchy as melodic songs with killer hooks, but the hooks in evidence here are all in the rhythms. It's often said that an unintelligible death growl is another musical instrument, but it's usually said with guitar or bass in mind. Sayed is more a like a flesh and blood drumkit.

While this is hypnotic and immersive as death metal, I'm surprised that the band didn't add more ethnic flavour. It's clearly there on Coffin Texts, as the guitar trills and wavers like we might expect from an Egyptian vocalist but without any attempt to sound like folk metal. There's a little early on in Upon the Pagan Lands too. Maybe I'll notice it more on earlier tracks on repeat listens. Certainly, wherever it's there, it's there in the guitar.

The cover art for Martyrs of the Storm is an excellent guide to what can be found within. This is dark music but warm. It has an immediate impact, but a more abiding presence as we look deeper to see the details. It's ritual but not in any immediately recognisable way. It's epochal, fought on a plane far above our own. It's intricate. It's lush. It's order imposed upon chaos. And it always has something new to discover.

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