Blackened deathcore is more recognized and accepted than ever, as new bands jump into the fray armed with spooky riffs, symphonic melodrama and crushing breakdowns… and very disturbing vocals. Speaking of vocals, they were the best and worst thing about Worm Shepherd's debut In the Wake Ov Sòl. There's a lot to love about Devin Duarte's over-the-top delivery, from goblin-esque shrieks to vomitorial lows, but in some places he pushed the boundaries past the realm of articulation. In this regard, Ritual Hymns offer more tasteful execution. Duarte's vocals have more distinction in their viciousness, as does the instrumentation.
The blackened side of Worm Shepherd has more in common with Dimmu Borgir than Darkthrone. Luckily, these guys avoid getting too campy with their neo-classical embellishments, as heard in the enormous buildup of opening title track. What's even more impressive is how naturally the song transitions from a harrowing shred-fest to a gut-busting breakdown. These guys aren't about to let Lorna Shore end the blackened deathcore arms race. Still, look no further than the groovy bass line that precedes the overwhelming wall of sound of "Ov Sword and Nail" to see how Worm Shepherd have honed their craft. There's even some nasty tech-death riffage to balance out the customary bottomless pit of guttural debauchery.
Worm Shepherd doesn't hide how clean their sound is, especially by black metal standards. After all, the down-tuned devastation that closes out both "Chalice Ov Rebirth" and "The River Ov Knives" wouldn't hit right without the 808 drops and gated snare hits. The former's downtempo style (that is, multiple seconds between notes and eerie soundscapes) and the latter's lopsided slams certainly hit hard when it counts, but the non-breakdown passages have a bit more disparity of outcome.
"Chalice" works out swimmingly when Worm Shepherd switches to grandiose synth arpeggios to nimble At The Gates-ish riffs, but it's hard not to imagine how the gloomy death doom vibes of "River" would sound with a more earthy, rustic sound. Regardless, the song's addition of forlorn melodic singing deepens the song's atmosphere, and the band's musicality as a whole. Indeed, surgically precise blast beats don't hinder the impact of mid-tempo Dissection vibes of "The Ravens Keep," a track that also sees the vocals become a little less punishing to fit the more straightforward vibe.
Where the ridiculous extremities of In the Wake Ov Sòl sometimes overstayed their welcome, a cut like “Wilted Moon” waits for the perfect moment to overturn the song into ultra-heavy madness. Said ridiculous extremities become a complementary facet of what’s essentially a symphonic black metal track with a tech-death rhythm section.
Worm Shepherd’s artful genre combinations help keep longer cuts like “Blood Kingdom” interesting, as it leans heavily on death metal axioms—whether that’s acrobatic fretwork and machine gun drumming or bone-snapping beatdowns. A lot of it surprisingly harks back to deathcore as it existed before the Myspace takeover, with black metal manifesting more through evil atmosphere, bombastic dynamics and witchy high screams than an overt musical signature. At the very least, it normalizes starting “A Bird in the Dusk” with mournful keys and rainstorm field recordings.
In a genre often plagued with killing time before the breakdown, Worm Shepherd packs these more involved songs with memorable, lethal ideas. Knowing when to hold onto a tremolo-picked note, when to let synths handle melody, or when to let lose a terrifying rasp before the mosh part… that’s what brings Ritual Hymns to the forefront of the blackened deathcore movement.
Worm Shepherd certainly takes a more seamless approach, but the band plays up stylistic contrast on the closing cut “Winter Sun.” It starts with precision double bass/guitar bursts, and ends with a low-and-slow chug-fest, but both passages come with support from synths more suited for a Satyricon interlude. In the same way, gravity blasts find a home within catchy tremolo riffs, and a triumphant lead even finds a foothold in the sonic fray. There's so much going on, but never without a motif to lead from beginning to end.
While it still technically falls under the blackened deathcore umbrella, Ritual Hymns finds Worm Shepherd proving how versatile this micro-genre can be. It's more than tunnel throat vocals, dissonant riffs and stupidly heavy breakdowns. Sure, all of that manifests on this record, alongside a more holistic display of musical chops. It plays more like a unique take on extreme metal, untethered by what’s okay or not. For a newer underground uprising, Worm Shepherd’s approach represents a definite step in the right direction.