Newly-formed trio With the Dead make zero effort to hide their malevolent intent. As frontman Lee Dorrian said in a recent interview here, they wanted to make, “the most depressive, soul-destroying heavy record we can possibly make between us,” and the six songs/42 minutes of their self-titled Rise Above Records debut bleed that intent front to back. Dorrian, both formerly of Cathedral and the head of Rise Above, adds his signature vocal declarations to the filth laden sludge ritual riffing of guitarist Tim Bagshaw (also bass) and the plod is pushed along by drummer Mark Greening.
Both Greening and Bagshaw were founding members of Electric Wizard, who also of course worked with Rise Above for years, but if anything is going to prevent With the Dead being pigeonholed as the “People Screwed Over by Jus Oborn Club,” it’s the album itself. More akin to the obscure, extreme drear proffered by Greening and Bagshaw together in Ramesses — though the lead of “I am Your Virus” has a touch of witchculting to it — With the Dead ultimately stands apart even from that in its vicious aural force and singular darkness. There are elements of preaching to the converted, which is to say that if With the Dead is the first doom record you’ve ever heard, your appreciation for it will be somewhat one-dimensional, but honestly, these songs have such a starting-point feel to them that I doubt audience was a consideration one way or another. Still, as doom for doomers, it stands among the top debuts and most crushing albums of 2015, and absolutely cakes itself in dirt and muck to meet its stated goal.
In a way, that’s the story of the thing. They made the album to be unreasonably heavy and succeeded.
It is not a record rife with nuance, and while the recording job by Jaime Gomez Arellano allows for an abyss of depth to the mix, With the Dead are much more concerned with bludgeoning than impressing with their subtlety. That’s true as feedback and odd sampling starts “Crown of Burning Stars,” which launches the album with a mid-paced roll that signals their immediate sonic dominance. Specifically to Dorrian‘s credit as the lyricist, he brings a hook to each of these tracks, and that of “Crown of Burning Stars” is particularly memorable as the leadoff, giving way to the faster “The Cross,” wherein a torrential riff races forward into chaos marked out by churning rhythms and, in the second half, some sampled Latin praying over a languid but thoroughly doomed solo. Bullshit factor: zero.
Closing out side A is “Nephthys,” a paean to the Egyptian goddess of the dead, which finds itself in comfortable nod as Bagshaw‘s riff opens up to Dorrian‘s effects-laden vocals. In addition to the chorus, Dorrian takes a page out of Black Widow‘s book, repurposing the “Come to the Sabbat” cadence of “Come, come, come to the sabbat/Come to the sabbat/Satan’s there,” into “Come, come, come to me Nephthys/Come to me Nephthys/I’m waiting here.” The affect is no less ritualized than the original, and Greening‘s toms plod out beneath the chant, punctuating and bolstering the words before Bagshaw takes over on a solo and they close out with noise and feedback.
For those who’d indoctrinate themselves into With the Dead‘s tumults and stretches of outright slaughter, “Living with the Dead” will no doubt be a highlight. After a quick sample, the song slams in and immediately chugs out the first line repeating the title. A defining moment for the album, its hypnotic through the guitar work of Bagshaw and and the lyrical repetitions, but more, it speaks to the kind of brutal decay on offer throughout. Later, the track offers as close to a “letup” as With the Dead ultimately come in a midsection break of organ, sparse guitar and drums that builds its way back up at around four and a half minutes in, at which point the riff that will lead the way out is established and ridden hard for the remaining three minutes, some far-back shouts providing a human touch early but giving way to the guitar, bass and drums soon enough. The subsequent “I am Your Virus” has a break of its own, but it’s shorter and the surroundings are overall less destructive, a companion piece for “The Cross,” though not nearing the same tempo, and when Greening crashes to start closer “Screams from My Own Grave,” it’s a clear signal of the slog that’s about to ensue.
Much to the band’s credit, they stick to the lumbering dirge the entire 8:40, and yeah, there’s a bit of weirding out with organ and all-tinted-brown guitar swirl, but the core of the finale, like the core of the album as a whole, is in the oppressive weight brought to bear. It’s easy to think that With the Dead might invariably expand their sound some as they move forward, which they reportedly will, but their real challenge in doing so will be finding a way to progress (regress?) and keep things interesting for themselves while also holding onto the rawness that makes their debut so unbridled and harsh. Or maybe they’ll go prog — who the hell knows? Point is, With the Dead‘s With the Dead is a temple built on misanthropic riffs and standout performances from three longtime contributors to the style who very obviously knew what they were doing when they came together in the first place. Whatever they do next, this album will remain devastating.