Wednesday 21 June 2023

Phlebotomized - Clouds of Confusion (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Progressive Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 May 2023
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There are few bands out there right now who merge the brutality of death metal and the delicacy of light melody better than Phlebotomized. This is their fourth studio album and their second since reforming in 2013 after sixteen years away. The other one was 2019's Deformation of Humanity and that was one of my early 8/10s here at Apocalypse Later back in my very first month, January 2019. I listed that as doom/death, while noting that it tended to be faster than most doom/death I hear. There's still some doom/death here, but this is a faster release again, with points reaching thrash speeds. Is it as good as its predecessor? Maybe not, but it's still a damn good album.

What I like the most about Phlebotomized is that they've found a way to be three different bands all at the same time, while making it seem like the most natural thing in the world. They find a mix of the brutality of death metal, the elegance of prog metal and the delicacy of melodic rock, each of those elements present in quantity in pretty much every track here. It doesn't feel like it ought to be an effortless mix but Phlebotomized make it seem natural.

The brutality is primarily there in the vocals of Ben de Graaff, which are consistently a deep growl that finds a little bark at points. It's also there at the back end when the band are shifting, with a rumbling bass and pounding drums. However they tend to shift more into the elegance, especially during guitar solos and what I'd call orchestration, even if that's all generated on Rob op 't Veld's keyboards. There are points where this swells up like symphonic metal and finds a depth in sound that's deeper than the already expansive seven member line-up might suggest.

That leaves the delicacy and that's there in a host of ways. It's there in the piano on the intro, Bury My Heart, and a host of other songs later. It's there in the grand sweep of the melody in Alternate Universe. It's there in the choral swell behind the narration on Lachrimae, one of an odd couple of tracks to build up to Destined to Be Killed, alongside the heavy and pounding Desolate Wasteland. It's there in hints and swells and textures and melodies and we're never that far away from one of them. Everything here is melody, just as everything is heavy, whether it's doom/death heavy or an upbeat thrash heavy.

And I've mentioned thrash twice, which is odd for a doom/death band, but Phlebotomized have an obvious goal of stretching that genre way beyond its traditional boundaries. The doom/death may be most obvious in the second half of the closer, Context is for Kings (Stupidity and Mankind), but I would suggest that it's more often present with a perkiness that shifts its tone, like on Death Will Hunt You Down. Other songs up the tempo to different degrees until we get to Destined to Be Killed, which they're pushing a video for. It's heavy from the outset, but with op 't Veld's melodies dancing like sprites over everything else. However, it shifts firmly into thrash for the chorus, enough to quickly remind of Kreator. Of course, there's still an elegant prog metal guitar solo in the middle that turns into a surprisingly bouncy sound for something so heavy.

I liked this album on a first listen but it wasn't as immediate or as emphatic as its predecessor. I've had it on repeat for a day or so though and it keeps on growing on me. Every song, except perhaps those two sub-minute long oddities, has fleshed out and established itself as its own track, worthy of standing on its own two feet, even if they tend to look over at their peers with a knowing wink. It all plays consistently but with versatility and that's a neat trick to master.

Destined to Be Killed is definitely a highlight here, but Pillar of Fire may have nudged past it in my personal esteem. That's a real grower and it may demonstrate the most seamless amalgam of the three different styles the band plays, the heavy death, elegant prog and delicate melody, down to the spoken word section. The other track that won't leave me alone is the awkwardly titled A Unity Your Messiah Pre Claimed, which kicks off with quirky jazz and builds into a swaggering song, with a high riff that almost sways along.

And so this matches the last album and may exceed it, so I think another highly recommended 8/10 is due. The downsides aren't particularly negative, but Desolate Wasteland doesn't add anything, Death Will Hunt You Down is a less successful version of Pillar of Fire, if still a good song. I'm not a huge fan of the two Bury My Heart tracks either. They're good, one intro and one instrumental at double the length of the intro, but they're not up to the highlights. But hey, that's two 8/10s now. I want to hear the next album already.

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