Italian slow burners Valgrind released their fourth LP ‘Condemnation’ this year; an album which, unlike the band’s career, wastes no time in setting its stall out. The approach taken here is akin to a melodic death metal version of mid-period Vader, with a vocalist that apes the Martin van Drunen style with some character of its own. This nevertheless proves to be a refreshing break from the guttural vocals buried in reverb which clouds so many recent death metal offerings cashing in on the caverncore craze. ‘Condemnation’ builds its foundations from a relentless thrashing energy that never settles on a tempo or repeated riff for more than a few bars before either moving on or switching it up in some way. Although the rhythmic underpinning remains more at the thrashy end of death metal, there is little time to catch your breath as Valgrind bounce between riffs and segments with ease.
The production is crystal clear, to the point where there is not much to say about it beyond the fact that it is fairly generic for modern ears. However, not so generic as to warrant calling attention to it. By that I mean that frequently modern mixes, that sound overtly digital, are so artificial to the point where it is becomes a distraction and a detriment to the music. Not so on ‘Condemnation’, as this frantic death metal lends itself to a meaty, clear production that can capture the power of the guitars and do justice to the nuanced melodies. Although the number of looped refrains remains relatively low, Valgrind return to core themes frequently enough throughout each track to contextualise the riff salad, and ground it in something more focused than would otherwise be the case.
Atonal, chugging chaos is offset by brief but intricate lead guitar work and an idiosyncratic approach to melodic licks as they jump out at unexpected intervals in contrast to the meaty power chord driven riffs. Drums find themselves more than up to the task of matching this adrenaline fuelled blend of techniques and tempos. We find them switching from tight blast-beats to free-flowing tom rolls and back to tight back-beats all in the space of a minute. They never distract from the guitars when the latter is taking centre stage, but prove to be an interesting listen in their own rite thanks to the variation and precision displayed in this performance.
This melting pot of techniques is located somewhere between Europe and the US, in the thrash of early Pestilence with all the energy of a young puppy, contrasted with the boisterous swagger of Bolt Thrower. This is then combined with some of the more proggy leanings of later efforts from members of the Tampa school. But from this complex and crowded mix of influences emerges an interesting and battle-ready style of melodic death metal that bucks the unfortunate trends of pop metal that this term often invokes. More importantly it results in a rich blend of musicality for the listener to sink their teeth into whilst dropping just enough restraint in that the whole affair comes across as focused and purposeful, and not a meaningless display of technical prowess for its own sake. By returning to central riffs frequently and often with subtle shifts in phrasing and rhythm the tracks feel grounded and energetic, and most importantly full of character.