Desolate is the first new offering from Icelandic technical death metal band Ophidian I since 2012’s Solvet Saeclum. While the previous record mostly slipped under most people’s radar, Desolate is the record that will make fans of the genre and its intricacies stand up and take notice.
Desolate opens with lead single “Diamonds”, marking, for many, the first time they have ever heard of Ophidian I, and what a start to a record it is. With an intro ambient dive straight out of Fallujah’s playbook, “Diamonds” plunges you into the deep end of the riff pool. Ophidian I have opted for the “sneeze and you’ll miss a hundred notes” approach to writing tech death, leaning heavily into high octane mid-to-high register string-skipped insanity interspersed with shimmering solos, accompanied with the usual flurry of two-hundred-plus beats-per-minute double bass and blast beat runs.
Every single of the ten tracks on Desolate is chock full of barbed wire riffs, blistering solos, and inhuman drums, and to highlight every tasty part would be a fool’s errand. However, a few flourishes do make certain tracks and sections stand above the rest. For example, the central hook and main earworm is the 8-bit videogame-like riff on “Spiral To Oblivion”, the tasteful bass arrangement on “Storm Aglow” that lays neatly above the chugs, which are very Soreption in their jaggedness. The acoustic intro to “Captive Infinity” is a personal favorite as it not only stands as a graceful arrangement by itself but also allows the listener to take a much-needed breath of air before being dunked back into the insanity that ensues for the rest of the track. Even though Ophidian is clearly leaning heavily into the riff-solo dichotomy on most of their tracks, the mid-tempo chug through that introduces “Enslaved In A Desolate Swarm” is a refreshing change, and cuts through the dizziness that the rest of the record offers, which is praise in its own regard. Another classic tech-death staple, the dead-stop riff a la Martyr is also thrown into “Enslaved..” to round out their hand of influences.
Strewn all over the forty minutes of Desolate are nods to various “schools” of technical death metal. However, the lads from Iceland seem to have drawn most of their plays from the Canadian approach to melodic tech-death. Nods to the veterans in Martyr, catchy-yet-quick melodic runs like Beyond Creation, and the bombastic grinning insanity of the fancy-pants in Equipoise. There are also subtle hints of the insanity of Beneath the Massacre. Some of the vocal staccatos runs even hint at the Canadian giants in Archspire as well as the triplet guitar runs which made Arkaik popular.
There is not much to be said about the individual member’s contributions in Ophidian I to their mega work in Desolate. Every single member is bringing their absolute A-game to the songwriting prowess, clambering over each other for their spot in the limelight while also bolstering each other to carry the vehicle of their sound forward.
As a matter of being finicky and not simply vomiting praise on what is evidently an extremely proficient record, there are a few minor gripes with Desolate. As a stylistic choice, the riff-solo-salad approach to tech death songwriting is one that will attract and even hold many of the ardent genre fans through the entire album run-time. However, for many new to the genre, hoping to dip their toes into the genre, possibly migrating from other subgenres of extreme metal, the constant sonic barrage can be overwhelming. Even for someone whose pet genre is tech-death, stomaching the entire record cover-to-cover was a gargantuan task, and breaks were needed. The only other complaint, as a matter of splitting hair, was the choice of mixing the low-end of the guitars/bass; as much as the mid and high register riffs and solos were crisp and pristine, the lower end riffs and chugs were left comparatively muddy and indistinct. Understandably, mixing extreme metal is a challenge, especially when there are tons of overlaid arrangements occupying their own headroom in the mix, but the cleaner low end, perhaps assisted with a punchier bass tone would have helped round out the entire sonic palette.
Desolate is a megalith of a record drawing its strengths and influences from various genre favorites. Ophidian I have nearly perfected the art of melding melody, brutality, and high-speed insanity on Desolate without compromising on thoughtful songwriting. This is the record that will put them on the map.