While it is a sad fact that most areas of life are not meritocracies, I find it particularly unnerving that in the heavy metal world—a genre that prides itself on defying conformity—fans are still susceptible to simply accepting what’s presented to them and not digging deeper.
This comes to mind as I ruminate about how low the bar seems to be set for extreme metal today. On the one hand, Meshuggah’s opus “Destroy Erase Improve” is already 20 years old, but today the whole Djent phenomenon continues unabated despite the fact its trademark low-end, percussive riffing style is a fairly simplistic device that would be more appropriate as part of a band’s arsenal and not its core songwriting element.
And then there’s the new crop of “post”-black metal bands like Deafheaven, loathsome Millennial hipsters whose main selling point is hype because they lack the serious musicianship and drive which birthed the sub-genre they now poorly emulate. That this band’s wishy-washy take on a once extremely potent movement could garner nationwide tours boggles my mind—the bland atmospheres they create simply exist with no sense of development before awkwardly transitioning into tedious shoegaze sections where the guitarist’s lack of chops is woefully apparent; and the vocalist’s monotone screams express none of the personality, urgency, or purpose found in songs like Impaled Nazarene’s classic “I Al Purg Vonpo” or “Schatten Aus Der Alexander Welt” by Bethlehem.
It is from this frustrated place that I think back on a time when exploring the dark corners of extreme metal almost always led you to a new band that was putting its own personal stamp on the form. I don’t know if the change stems from the fact that before everything went online and digital, when the old industry hierarchies and cost of actual tape made fostering real talent a logistical imperative, but back then if something crossed your path it had probably entered the zeitgeist for a reason.
Further, before you could run to an internet safe space every time you had a depressed feeling, and before you could post every new riff on YouTube 5 minutes after you wrote it, bands and scenes had the time and space to develop a meaningful identity, and only then were they ready to present themselves to the world.
The Swedish and Florida death metal scenes immediately come to mind, but just across the water from Stockholm something very important was also brewing in Denmark. Supported by the mighty Progress Red Labels young bands like Konkhra, Dominus, and Mercenary were carving out a sound exemplified by massive drum production, overwhelming death growls, and sophisticated guitar work that balanced unorthodox riffing with flowing song structures.
Mightiest of all was Illdisposed, whose incomparable 1993 debut “Four Depressive Seasons” is a truly dark and oppressive experience. The 9 songs sit atop a crisp drum production rich with reverb, and Michael Enevoldsen’s performance sounds almost like a live mixing-board recording as the double-bass and toms roar out to pummel the listener. This clarity is crucial in ensuring that the real carnage does not get lost in the shuffle as Bo Summer’s gruff, double-tracked “subwoofer” vocals sweep over the listener like a howling windstorm.
Cementing this grim death metal display as a classic is the churning guitar work of Lasse D.R. Bak, who possesses a seemingly endless supply of catchy mid-paced riffs which move steadily forward via clever breaks and momentous transitions, all topped off by his tasteful implementation of melodic solos played with confident feeling.
This deft balancing act between elements both brutal and refined is why “Four Depressive Seasons” embodies that crucial distinction between playing “death metal with melody” and the more cliche “melodic death metal.” For all the hundreds of bands who took the easy way out by copying the simplest aspects of the bouncy-riff style trademarked by At the Gates and In Flames, Illdisposed stands as a monument incriminating their dereliction of duty both as musicians and students of the genre.
Not wasting any time, a year later the band unleashed the simply ruthless “Return from Tomorrow” EP. With guitars that hinted at a Bolt Thrower influence and Summer’s inclusion of a disturbing new wail that merges John Tardy with Martin van Drunen, these grimy 7 songs were not to be ignored as they showed Illdisposed increasing in lethality as it stripped down in structure. In the title track a furious escape from the brooding middle section gives a tasteful nod to Entombed’s “Sinners Bleed,” while “Withering Teardrops” shows the band’s prowess in unconventionally using female vocals to evoke a feeling of deeper depression rather than any hope for romance.
This sharpening of the elements was perfected on their last truly significant release, 1995’s “Submit.” Featuring new drummer Rolf Rognvard Hansen and a drier, more intimate sound, this album simply buries you under the massive weight of the deeply down-tuned guitars and Summer’s enveloping trademark woof. Newfound elements of groove and even tasteful hints of NY-style hardcore death metal find balance with Illdisposed’s uncompromising commitment to heaviness as relentless mid-paced passages grind forward, with the occasional well-placed lead thrown in to counter the oppressive feelings that build up in the listener.
Highlights here include the back-to-back punch of “Memories Expanded” and “Slow Death Factory,” the former being an utterly crushing mosh pit anthem that crescendos with a plaintive guitar solo, the latter a rollicking affair that even dishes out some manic acoustic guitar, sounding like a gypsy strumming furiously before his unwashed relatives. Haunting album closer “Die Kingdom” is some sort of wicked amalgamation of the Benedictine Monks and Napalm Death’s “Plague Rages”—a fittingly disturbing end to Illdisposed’s unforgettable early years!
Follow-up albums “There’s Something Rotten in the State of Denmark” and “Kokaiinum” each had their charming moments but it wasn’t until 2004’s “1-800-Vindication” that the band found top form again as they delivered a modern-sounding but still potent performance, highlighted by the passionate “In Search of Souls.” In my opinion, subsequent releases have been a bit formulaic but this takes nothing away from the debt death metal fans owe Illdisposed for their pioneering early work.