A common maxim emanating from the real estate industry is: what’s most important in the selection of a home or business is “location, location, location.” While location may not play as exclusively vital a role in extreme music as housing and retail mavens would have you believe, one’s place of origin does have an indelible impact on musical output. You don’t have to think too hard to find examples: Black Sabbath, the band that started this whole heavy metal mess, called the bleakness of ‘60s Birmingham home; think of all the hardcore rage that emerged from the gritty Lower East Side of pre-Disney NYC; and the isolation and cold surrounding a bunch of kids in a theological and cultural war with Christianity spawned Norwegian black metal.
When Kingston Upon Hull, England tourist board rejects Mastiff first burst onto the scene five years ago with the Death and Everything Equals Death EPs, they self-described as “a miserable band from a miserable town” and certainly had the sound to illustrate their gloom. Theirs was a din drenched in feedback, scorched earth sludge and a vocal bellow so hollow that listeners didn’t know whether to curiously look on to discern if a human was actually making those noises or take a few steps back from where a Portal to Hell was about to open under their feet. Sometimes it worked. But most of the time the band’s own penchant for looseness and single-take sloppiness caught the better of them. It made for a harrowing listen as much as it made us yearn that they’d at least wait until after playing to crack open six bottles of Jim Beam and the rails of white powder.
With the news that second full-length, Plague was recorded live off the floor—vocals done simultaneously with no tracking separation—it appeared that the misanthropic heartthrobs were up to their old tricks. And the result was going to be more hit-and-miss with any experienced enjoyment based in part on the listeners’ ability to suspend notions of perfection or at least cohesion. However, a funny thing happened since previous album, 2016’s Wrank, and the band repairing to Hull’s Studio 94 to record this behemoth: they got tight. I mean, surprisingly fucking tight! Plague may not be on par with the antiseptic, quantized jibberish that passes for modern-day tech death (thankfully!), but had the band’s bio not pointed out the live recording feature, I probably never would have noticed.
The Mastiff pendulum swings Plague from miserable boomerang blasts of fuzzed-out, bass-heavy rumble to redlining grind throttling hardcore ‘round the neck. Somewhere between Buzzov*en and Napalm Death, Eyehategod and Nails lies opening hate volley “Hellcircle” and the noise-scape aided “Brainbleed” whereas “Weep” combines traditional thrash gallop with the rapid-fire, 625/Slap-a-Ham Records twist on the genre. A track like “Vermin” is quite possibly the mid-paced stomp-mosh riff possessing the ability to whittle wood into lethal spiky weapons and make skulls grow thicker with Jim Hodge opening up that promised underworld portal during the song’s closing half. Album closer “Black Death” emanates ungodly amounts of disgust via nine minutes of ax swinging dirge that’s as throat slashing terror-ific as it is monotonous molasses.
Herein lies the crux of the matter: as brutal and powerful as Plague is, and as impressive as it was performed and recorded such that a track like “Black Death” was completed in one take, it’s a pretty standard stroll down sludge metal lane. The album will absolutely kill a few brain cells, slice open a few wrists, but it's not dragging metal – to a more specific extent, the sludge subgenre – kicking and screaming into uncharted territory.