If there’s one thing – well, one more thing – we can dump into the lap of the Covid-19 pandemic it’s the amplification of the self/home recording model that had already been on the upswing for a number of years. However, as with anything, there are good and bad sides to this. Take the time to do a deep and focused headphones listen—it’s not like you have shows to go to!—to any random handful of self-recorded, self-releases and you should be able to hear who’s got their shit together and who should have woodshopped some more before foisting their labour of love onto the public.
I mention this because, in the same way Hannes Grossmann has established himself in the top tier of extreme metal musicians— among other CV highlights, dude was heavily responsible for Obscura’s Cosmogenesis, one of the best tech-death albums of the 2000s —he’s demonstrated himself to be an emerging recording/studio whiz when it comes to engineering, production, and other recording/studio whiz stuff.
To Where the Light Retreats is his fourth solo album in which he’s laid down the songwriting, drums, guitars, and vocals basis and cobbled together assisting performances from guitarists Danny Tunker and Christian Muenzer, bassist Linus Klausenitzer and vocalists V. Santura and Morean then pieced the whole thing together lone-wolf style. Brass tacks: through hard work, trial and error, shoving his face in a book/manual, and holing up for studio crash courses, Grossmann has grown from the whirling dervish behind Necrophagist’s dysfunctional drum kit to one of extreme music’s options for one-stop shopping. He’s become a member-in-good-standing in that growing group of personalities who’s been able to flourish both technically and creatively. Here, he combines and pushes those elements for the fourth time.
“The Great Designer” starts the album off with an Exodus-like snarl transposing Metallica’s “Blackened” with the languid features of melodic Gothenburg metal firing off in a multitude of directions. The verses are brutal, but heavy on the single note skittishness; the chorus is broad and expansive like a cloudy sky backlit by the sun trying to burn through the haze; there’s some pedal-like chugging with transitions to parts bordering on hardcore breakdowns and some arpeggiated swagger. Of course, solos fire off like they're endangered species, but are enjoyable in a 'Late Night Heroes of Classic Rock vs. Death Metal Dudes' jam session sorta style. What surprised most about this song is how it sups at the well of non-linearity, but actually comes across with a structure and purpose that belies the kitchen sink collection of riffs.
On a more streamlined note, the layered chorus of “The Sun Eaters” has a ridiculous hook that is immediate and infectious, like Swedish Viking metal possessed by the spirit of German power metal. Eagle-eared listeners will latch onto how the first round of rapid-fire leads makes subtle mode/scale shifts in concert with the subtle key shifts buried in the riff.
If Don Cornelius’ Soul Train ever needed a death metal track to add to its Saturday afternoon playlist, it’d be “The Symbolic Nature of Terms.” And not coincidentally, this tune happens to be one of the most exciting melodi-death tracks we’ve heard in a long while. Hear me out, troo-er-than-thou non-believers: the song’s wily chug offers up a body lurching groove that’ll have mind’s eyes picturing ragers in battle vests Popping and Locking and busting out The Robot. There’s a brief retraction towards more clinical, but languid, death metal during the outro, the bridge has whiffs of Krautrock peppering the background and all the solos are slick, pristine, and modern, but if you want to get down and dirty with your single white glove, this is the metal scene’s summer jam.
Both “In the Glacier’s Eye” and “Dhaulagiri” are a bit more standard fare. The former is darker and reminiscent of God Dethroned while the latter has the prevailing Death/Obscura tone adding brief flashes of weirdness reminiscent of Anacrusis and Wrathchild America to offer a few oddball angles to snag weary ears. Rhythms lock into the double kicks while guitars spit out melody lines and legato runs as a contentious hostage situation resolution depended on them being played faster and smoother than a South American mudslide.
There are moments where the subgenre’s limitations and the fact that the lion’s share of this emerges from the mind of one man creates moments of familiarity and momentum-stalling. A discouraging share of “Death and the Vast Nothing” could have emerged from the maw of melodic death’s faceless pit, but you gotta admire the encouraging attempts to gussy things up with kalimba-like plinking, irreverent vocodors and a mid-section that ridiculously collides Watchtower’s Control and Resistance with .38 Special’s Wild-Eyed Southern Boys.
There’s an attempt to break the up-tempo majority with “The Fountain,” an atmospheric crawler in the vein of “The Thing That Should Not Be” meets “I’m But a Wave To.” But it’s definitely something one has to be in a particular mood for. Then again, on album closer “Memento” Grossmann demonstrates the ability to take the commonplace and create excitement with elements like catchy vocal lines, right angle tempo changes, riffs with complementary arpeggios, a super-clean, conservatory-worthy solo resplendent while exploiting all the peaks and valleys that epic song/set closers should possess.
And herein lies the triumph of To Where the Light Retreats: it takes a well-worn subgenre that has had a lack of innovation suffocating the bright lights and adds a healthy helping of wattage to the beacons of progress. By shucking the shackles of straight-ahead At the Gates worship, Grossmann not only massages the advancement of his playing field, but in tracks like “Memento” and “The Symbolic Nature of Terms” offers up pre-nomination for future classics in a subgenre that sometimes felt like it stopped after Tomas Lindberg hollered “Go!”