Bereft, Leichenhaus: Crafting a New Abyss

Released by The End Records at the end of April (it would be awesome if they only put out records the last week of every month, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it actually works), the debut full-length from Los Angeles death/doomers Bereft, Leichenhaus, tells a lot of its story in its title. The German word for “funeral home,” Leichenhaus immediately lays out a lot of the thematic the band is working with, and one is perhaps left wondering if they went with the German instead of the English to avoid comparisons to the Norwegian band Funeral, who were among the pivotal acts in this genre – hence “funeral doom.” Similar flourishes of melodicism persist, though they’re hardly unique to these two acts – the band also shares its moniker with an Esoteric song – and Bereft’s influence from the extreme end of metal comes through in the pedigree of its members. Guitarist/vocalist Charles Elliott comes to Bereft via death metallers Abysmal Dawn (full disclosure: he’s also a publicist at Nuclear Blast with whom I’ve had dealings for years now), and bassist Derek Rydquist is formerly of Summer Slaughter Tour veterans The Faceless. Drummer Derek Donley and guitarist Sacha Dunable shared a tenure in Graviton, who released an album called Massless last year on Translation Loss, and Dunable is also of jazzy neo-prog metal technicians Intronaut. As complex as the history if its players might be, the sound of Bereft is equally cohesive, each member clearly well versed in plodding tempos and sorrowful melodies. If I’m honest, I’ve been kind of hoping a band like Bereft would come along for a while now and contrast all the cleaner-sung blues-derived doom that seems to be the staple of the genre these days. Nothing wrong with that stuff, but death/doom’s extremity is like a touchstone for how much misery you can actually pack into a song, and as Leichenhaus – at seven tracks/40 minutes – feels about twice as long, it’s pretty clear the foursome are doing something right.

The album is sandwiched by crushingly atmospheric instrumental pieces. First of them, “Corpse Flower” is a suitable lead-in, caked in feedback and ploddingly drummed, long sustained, detuned guitars ringing out a wash of noise and eyes-to-the-ground riffing. We’re still a ways off from Elliott’s first vocal, which arrives almost a minute into the second track, “Mentality of the Inanimate,” and begins to show more of where Bereft’s balance between death and doom metals lies on their debut album. His and Dunable’s guitars are quick to harmony, which would seem to be an indication both of melodic influence from classic European doom, and the technical awareness that current American extreme metal mandates. They know how to play guitar, is what I’m saying, and it’s just that here they’re doing it slowly and letting the parts breathe, rather than cramming scales in where they need not be. Perhaps most telling of all the elements in conveying the band’s death metal roots, though, are the vocals. Not just that they’re growls, but also how those growls are executed. Elliott’s guttural rasp on “Mentality of the Inanimate,” on “Withered Efflorescence,” which follows, and almost everywhere else it appears on Leichenhaus, is sharply ended. Rather than hold them in sustained defeat, he cuts his lines off cold. Dunable, Donley and Rydquist are all credited with backing vocals, and sure enough, there are variations in the types of screams and growls used – “Withered Efflorescence” is more complex in general and also features the first of several acoustic guitar parts, but especially around the three-minute mark it’s apparent that there’s more than one singer in the band. If that kind of vocal turns you off outright, Bereft won’t change your mind, but with mid-period Akerfeldtian clarity in his growl, Elliott is more than capable of conveying emotion and acting as more than just another member of the rhythm section. The natural shift from the return of that muti-vocal interplay to a sustained melodic guitar solo speaks to the emotionality of the vocals and indeed the song as a whole.

Still, though they more than ably execute these characteristics of the death/doom genre, Bereft also have to answer for the fact that most of what they’re doing is so well established. Most of the melody comes from the guitar, and there’s a drudgery inherent in death/doom that’s hard to overcome over the course of a full-length album – even a relatively short one like Leichenhaus (a lot of bands would’ve gone for the whole hour on their first album and been mistaken to do so). Psychedelic and ambient guitar opens “The Coldest Orchestra” and the song that follows is a little faster despite offering no real quarter tonally or in its atmosphere. A start-stop angularity, filled out by echoes though it is, reveals some of the Intronaut-type lineage, and a cymbal wash from Donley seems to act as the basis for a psych freakout – and part of me really wanted them to go for it – but they cut quickly back to the more straightforward verse and chorus tradeoff. Maybe that was too much to hope for from a first album. “The Coldest Orchestra” is one of Leichenhaus’ strongest tracks nonetheless, and between it and the eight-minute album apex “Ethereal Dispersal,” it’s easy to lose sight of “A Cruel Mirage” altogether. On its own, however, the song justifies its position by continuing the balance of melody and brutality, the Karl Sanders-worthy growls resting surprisingly well next to airy guitar work and a rolling midpoint groove without sounding more unnatural than intended. No question, though, “Ethereal Dispersal” is Bereft’s most complex and triumphant moment. Beginning with classically downtrodden guitar, the song oozes its way through its transitions, melody coming to the fore early in a weaving of acoustic and electric guitar. This burgeoning psychedelic side might be where Bereft’s greatest potential lies, but it’s still a rudimentary element in their sound as of Leichenhaus. Elliott’s vocal is farther back in the mix initially, blending well into the more open-sounding mix until just before three minutes in, the guitars get louder and he comes more forward.

From there, the plod is by now familiar, but a cyclical lead line serving as a rhythmic counterpoint intrigues during the verse and the song as a whole is immaculately composed and immersive. The only hint of clean vocals – chanting – comes near halfway through, and “Ethereal Dispersal” soon drops out to a quiet stretch led by Rydquist’s bass in a way that much of the album has not been. When they resume the progression, it feels like a renewed sense of purpose, and the remaining two and a half minutes of the total 8:19 feel more like a victory lap in celebration of what they’ve been able to do on Leichenhaus. Well earned. A final growl bleeds across the tracks and “…And You are but a Thought” serves as an epilogue, with some initial crashing and Khanate-style drumming from the void setting the stage for samples and spoken parts to creepily bring the record to its close. While more exciting conceptually than musically (I say that with the allowance that this music isn’t supposed to be “exciting” in any real traditional sense of the word), what Leichenhaus does successfully is reignite the viability of death/doom on a level it hasn’t seen in some time. Whatever the status of Bereft might be, whether it’s a side-project to be visited on occasion or a full-time band to parallel its members’ other outlets, their first album shows a serious potential to contribute something original to the largely stagnant genre pool, and that’s where the chief excitement comes from. These songs are melodically rich, as heavy as anything you might want to put them next to, and well composed, but there’s still a sense in listening to Leichenhaus that it’s just the beginning for the band. I hope that turns out to be the case.

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