While I may not know the full story of Germany’s Disbelief, I do know that back around the time of their self-titled debut in 1997, their crushing second album, Infected a year later and 2003’s Spreading the Rage, I was what you would consider a fan of the band. The quintet from Gunderhausen hasn’t stopped delivering the mid-paced sludge/death/thrash since forming in 1990, but whether it’s a combination of their ten releases being issued by labels with limited reach and influence, their spotty touring schedule beyond the confines of mainland Europe or the consistently amateurish cover art that has graced almost all of their releases, Disbelief has never really taken off the way they probably should have in the light of the popularity of Neurosis and Roots-era Sepultura which remain solid reference points on The Symbol of Death.
Remaining unheralded may have put a damper on the band’s ability to capitalize on momentum and been responsible for the self-imposed scaling back of activity since 2009’s Protected Hell, but if anything, it’s lit an angry fire under the band for the present day. Returning with 60% new faces, vocalist and lone original member, Karsten Jäger leads his new charges along a path of misery and despair. The positive channelling of life’s frustrations into art is an oft-spoken mantra. With Disbelief, listeners can truly feel the deep-seated issues pertaining to the ways of the world, mental health, human cruelty, delusion and violence in Jäger’s vocals and the way he commands centre stage with a unique rasp and grizzly bellow. He’s backed by a rhythm section possessing a monstrous bass tone and drums from the Cavelera school, albeit without the flash, flair and South American heat. Guitarists David Renner and Alexander Hagenauer contribute customarily down-picked thunder and chug that recall as much bright and sassy new school sludge as it does mid-tempo Bolt Thrower-inspired wrist-slitter riffs that’ll make you want to make nice with a bar of Irish Spring and an inner city fire hydrant. The pair also complement the underlying muck with melodic dueling deviations and harmonic ascents in tracks like “Embrace the Blaze” that bring to mind a mix of post-black metal weirdness and thrash orthodoxy. Other times, like in the brief middle eight and subdued clean section in “To Defy Control,” it sounds like someone has spent a fair amount of time spinning Ride the Lightning, which is never a bad thing. The title track welcomes martial marching black metal to classic mid-period Neurosis all accented by a layer of swooping, chromatic guitars.
The biggest stumbling block The Symbol of Death poses is its tendency towards same sounding riffs and melodies, though they do excel when it comes to tempo variance. There are also moments when they drag out riffs and songs much longer than need be, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. Prime example, album opener “Full of Terrors” could have sliced off the repeated finishing refrain, saved about a minute in playing time and left anyone engaged wanting more instead of wondering why they keep hammering away at the same point without any elements added to a quickly flattened feel. Not a great way to kick off an album. On the other hand, they do almost the exact opposite with the next track, “The Unsuspecting One” starting it off sounding similar to its predecessor, but building it into an epic piece of work with simple guitar melodies, droning clean vocals, sweeping dynamics and a double-kick patterned denouement.
It’s a slippery slope, the adding of hooks to a style which by design is supposed to revel in repetition as an expression of miserable negativity. But instead of beating the same handful of riffs that fostered a genre, Disbelief attempt to emblazon and embolden things with their own melodic sense. Most times it works, but when it doesn’t, the small window that allows for that failing really has the weaker moments standing out like sore thumbs.