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cover Umbra Vitae – Light Of Death


Album Review: UMBRA VITAE Light Of Death

8 Reviewer

While described by vocalist Jake Bannon as the closest he has gotten to playing in a death metal band, Umbra Vitae has too many unique cooks in the kitchen to be described in those terms alone. We're talking about a group where Mike McKenzie (The Red Chord), and Sean Martin (Hatebreed, Twitching Tongues) write riffs for Jon Rice (who somehow has Uncle Acid and Job For A Cowboy in his resume).

After accounting for Bannon's long history as the screamer in Converge, and one more Red Chord member in bassist Greg Weeks, Umbra Vitae playing orthodox death metal was never a real option. Such was far from the case with 2020's Shadow of Life, and now with Light of Death, the band has transcended the supergroup stereotype as they synergize their styles for a thoughtful exercise in auditory violence.

With 15 tracks clocking in at 45 minutes, Umbra Vitae has chomped at the bit to build out their sound — like "Leave of Absence" opening with what sounds like hurdy gurdy drones and dissonant violin stings. But once the blast beats and caterwaulings take full effect, the band's particular cross-section of death metal and hardcore materializes. Umbra Vitae's death metal is calculated and unrelenting, while its hardcore is bestial and chaotic.

Kurt Ballou's signature production allows both shades of extremity to flourish, with that perfect blend of brutal clarity and raw intensity. "Belief is Obsolete" further establishes this approach with how primitive the mosh parts become, in contrast to the technicality of the tremolo riffing. Bannon's vocals tread a similar line, as he explores the spooky showmanship of extreme metal, without losing sight of his Converge style. Many screamers would lean on gutturals for that double-kick-infested mosh part, but his irate howls give it a more manic urgency.

The Entombed influence is hard not to notice on a cut like "Anti-Spirit Machine," like Nails with less grind and more deathrash (especially with the guitar solo and half-time breakdown). The brooding melodicism of "Velvet Black" brings a flavor that's not only new to Umbra Vitae, but really all musicians involved. Bannon bringing gothic baritone singing into the mix is certainly a welcome surprise, but the way the slow-burning melancholy launches into a mid-tempo beatdown works way better than it should. It shows that these guys can ease off the throttle and reveal a more nuanced side of their songwriting.

"Cause and Effect" is the boldest example of this lighter touch from Umbra Vitae, with rustic acoustic guitar strains immersing the vibe in melancholy serenity—until a literal jump scare falsetto shriek (or feedback stab? Whatever it is, it's unsettling as hell), cuts through the mix to bring in that ever-loving mid-tempo death metal stomp. From head-splitting chugs to protracted chord progressions, the band has grown in their respect for the atmosphere and barbarism.

In other cases, like "Nature Vs Nurture," the evocative underpinnings waste little time in dropping into a metallic hardcore slug-fest. It's not too dissimilar from the myriad of hardcore bands Ballou has produced—until that decimating trem-and-blast attack and… wait, was that a disco beat? In other words, one does not simply tumble from Anaal Nathrakh to At The Gates. There's more going on here than brazen power.

But still, it's not like Umbra Vitae is trying too hard to push past the bare necessities of extreme music. Blitz-speed attacks like "Clear Cutter" and "Reality in Retrograde," have a lot in common with the newer Full of Hell songs in their ability to hit hard and fast, but not dumb. The former offers plenty of agile riffing and a constant increase of momentum, while the latter brings a power-violence-ish addiction to tempo changes. In either case, reinventing the wheel isn't the goal. In these moments, the band focuses on distilling the essence of their chosen genres (with great results).

The album's flow never loses momentum throughout 15 tracks. A track like "Past Tense" gives just the right dose of angular arpeggios and chilling chord changes to keep listeners wanting more, while the evocative guitar leads toward the end. "Algorithm Of Fear" shows restraint within Umbra Vitae's sonic fray. It bears repeating that this music does not bear the indulgent goofery often associated with "supergroups." Nothing overstays its welcome, whether it be unbridled aggression or sparse islands of introspection.

Perhaps more importantly, there are a lot of moments when Umbra Vitae just sounds like dudes having fun, like the exhilarating drum fills and thrashy galloping of "Twenty-Twenty Vision." Extremity doesn't have to be angry or dark, but a band like this should do both — such as the minor-key arpeggios found in "Empty Vessel." It could be likened to black metal, if it didn't also divulge in four-on-the-flour beatdowns. Again, find a band that can do both! A group that can go grindcore with "Deep End," but find a way to bring things back to heavy-ass riff-mongering and dancing leads on "Fatal Flaw."

Where many bands in this sphere would try to get moodier at the last, "Light of Death" closes out Light of Death with some of the most intense moments on the record. From a devastating mosh riff to an array of grooves, blasts, and groovy blasts, Umbra Vitae aptly represents that approach to extreme metal that isn't afraid to play by feeling and emotion instead of the modern trend of sterile gridlock. Umbra Vitae just plays great metal. In whatever genre they choose, they do it remarkably well.

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