Bloodbath, the ferocious death metal band comprising members of Katatonia and Opeth (amongst others), have had something of a tempestuous relationship with vocalists. Mikael Akerfeldt provided vocals for the band between 1998 and 2005 and was then replaced by Peter Tagtgren only to return to helm the band for the stunning ‘the fathomless mystery’. It was not to last, however, and with Mikael’s tastes increasingly favouring progressive music, the singer announced that he would be leaving the band once again in 2012. It took some time for a replacement to be found, and even longer for the news to be made public, but in the end Bloodbath announced that Nick Holmes, the legendary Paradise Lost frontman would be taking the band forward with a new album, ‘Grand morbid funeral’. In honesty it was a surprising, although not unwelcome, announcement. Although Paradise Lost have increasingly veered away from the icy death metal of ‘gothic’ and their raw, sulphurous debut album, there have been hints that Nick has been aching to unleash his forbidding growl once more, not least on the recent ‘tragic illusion’ album, which saw the band re-record two classic songs, a task that Nick attacked with more than a little relish. Still, this being the age of the internet, there were more than a few people prepared to voice their doubts about Nick’s ability to carry the band’s ferocious legacy forward, and it is with no little pleasure that I can confirm that the doubters were very, very wrong.
Opening with ‘Let the stillborn come to me’ two things are immediately apparent. Firstly, the departure of Mikael lit an unholy fire under the remaining Bloodbath band members resulting in some of the most potent death metal the band have yet unleashed. Secondly Nick Holmes has lost none of his ability to unleash a ferociously caustic roar. His vocals on the album have to be heard to be believed and as he vomits forth the lyrics on the opening number it is with an unbridled glee that immediately elevates this release to the forefront of death metal. You could not ask for a better pairing than this, and it is an absolute pleasure to hear Nick unleashing his forbidding growl with such force. Any thoughts that the opening track was, in some way, a fluke, are instantly banished by ‘total death exhumed’ with its inhuman vocal performance and crushing guitar riffs. Fast, furious and delivered with grim determination, this is death metal as it should be – varied, inventive and yet never less than devastating. Maintaining the blistering savagery, ‘Anne’ is a doom-laden track that is so smothered in darkness that it all but eclipses the light. Fast and frenetic, it conjures an atmosphere of bleached bones and desecrated tombs with its evilly distorted guitars and death’s head grin and Nick’s career-defining performance towers above all. With a briefly atmospheric fade in, ‘Church of Vastitas’ is a stately, mid-tempo song with a blackened edge that lodges itself firmly under the skin. The last word in death-infused thrash, ‘famine of god’s word’ is an unspeakably heavy slab of hyper-speed riffing and cataclysmically heavy percussive blasts (courtesy of Martin Axenrot) designed to stun the listener into submission. The first side ends with ‘mental abortion’, a song that harks back to the days of Celtic Frost’s ‘into the pandemonium’ as the band lose themselves in the simple act of playing for the sake of playing. Throughout there’s a noticeable sense of release as these fine musicians indulge the music they love, and if Nick’s performance is stunning, it is surely no more impressive than the amazing display put on by the rest of the band.
Side two of the beautifully pressed silver vinyl opens with ‘beyond cremation’, a searing, blackened piece of music that is redolent with menace. Similarly ‘his infernal necropsy’ has an atmosphere of violence that recalls the gritty horrors of Cannibal Corpse and Autopsy (a connection helped along nicely by guest appearances from Eric and Chris) and it is hard to believe just how vicious Bloodbath have become with this album. Next up is the solo-laden ‘unite in pain’ which opens with the mighty Eric Cutler (guesting here, as he does on ‘total death exhumed’ and ‘mental abortion’) cutting loose over a cataclysmic backdrop before the band close ranks for the crushing chorus. ‘My torturer’ sees the band up the pace still further in their quest to create the heaviest record of their career before the blackened title track closes the album complete with a guest vocal from Chris Reifertand leaves the listener with the distinct impression that they’ve just been mugged at knife point.
Up until this point my favourite Bloodbath record was the ‘unblessing the purity’ EP, a four track EP that distilled Bloodbath’s formidable skills into one, near perfect, slab of vinyl. ‘Grand Morbid Funeral’ might, however, be even better. There’s an atmosphere of devilish glee that hangs over the record, a horrific and unshakable pall of death that plunges even the brightest room into darkness as the band unleash their crushing riffs. Bloodbath have long been considered a legendary name in the death metal scene, but Nick Holmes is the real revelation here. Whilst Paradise Lost have long been one of my favourite bands, I’d believed Nick’s death metal growl to be long a thing of the past and yet his performance here is surely one of the best extreme metal performances I’ve heard all year. With bloodbath providing the apocalyptic backdrop, Nick delivers the performance of a lifetime and there is no question that, even at this late stage, ‘Grand Morbid Funeral’ belongs high amongst the top releases of the year. A crushing, psychotic slab of blackened death metal, Bloodbath have just unleashed a metallic masterpiece – this is, without doubt, an essential album for any self-respecting metal fan.