Considering the insane résumés of End Reign's lineup, to refer to The Way of All Flesh is Decay as "highly anticipated" would be an understatement:
- Domenic Romeo, guitar (Integrity, Pulling Teeth, Day of Mourning, etc.)
- Mike Score, vocals (All Out War, Below the Frost, etc.)
- Art Legere, bass (Bloodlet)
- Adam Jarvis, drums (Pig Destroyer, Misery Index, etc.)
- Sebastian Phillips, guitar (Noisem, Exhumed, etc.)
Certainly one of my personal most-anticipated releases of 2023, I was fortunate enough to get an early listen, and my assessment was sought, so... below are my first impressions based on an initial three to five spins.
The only single released thus far, the album begins with a slow, dark, melodic intro that includes some narration in Italian or Latin or something. Just as you start to wonder what's ahead—about a minute in—the composition fluidly transitions into a surge of blackened tremolo picking. Not particularly fast, though—the tempo still feels plodding and mid-paced, shifting back-and-forth with a few crusty hardcore rhythms. The vocals are absolutely scathing, too. It feels like they might have a little more clarity and texture than usual, which really makes you wonder how decimated Mike's throat must be!? The two-minute mark kicks off an unexpectedly ripping solo—not just some chaotic flurry, we're talkin' a seemingly composed solo—followed by another barely over a minute later. The latter crescendos into a thundering breakdown which then breaks down again—a breakdown within a breakdown!?—to end the track in chug-tastic form.
"Chaos Masked as Order"
Ah, yes, this one feels like classic Clevo hardcore to start—and by that I mean Integrity, Ringworm, etc.—before speeding up into a lightly dissonant fusion of thrash metal and the same blackened niche displayed by the opener. Some guttural death metal grunts as well as utterly nasty snarls—courtesy of Dylan Walker (Full of Hell, etc.)—creep in midway through. Always a nice touch, this one even cranks out left-to-right tradeoff leads from Dom and Sebastian, further demonstrating that they really mean business with these solos. Fuck yes on the massive breakdown, too—again bringing classic Integrity to mind. But—holy shit!—for the second song in a row, a breakdown within a breakdown to close! Unbelievable! I can't help but chuckle a bit. This double-'down, however, features some ominous narration from Ed Ka-Spel (The Legendary Pink Dots, etc.).
The next two selections were on last year's MMXXII cassingle, though these versions are slightly updated and enhanced. "The Hunger" remains a highlight—just a powerful monster of a tune from the get-go. In retrospect, it feels to some degree like textbook apocalyptic metalcore, but that's not at all to imply that it's xeroxing any pre-existing format, moreso simply nailing everything about a revered aesthetic. Midpaced and chuggy, a sense of breathing room allows both the vocals and the rhythm section some extra space to shine. Jarvis lays down some badass percussive grooves, with lots of subtle flare on the double bass patterns.
"Divine Abysmal End"
Cleveland sort of springs to mind again, but with those edges of thrash and dissonance. These cassingle cuts back-to-back within the context of the full album make me wonder if they were intentionally used as the early advance tracks since—aside from being awesome—they sort of match what I think most listeners would generally have expected from a project of this nature, thus keeping the album's surprises under wraps. I must note, Mike's vocals during the closing breakdown here are arguably one of his strongest performances ever—delivered with the unhinged ferocity of some fire-breathing endtime sermon. Intense.
The only song that tops five minutes, "Serpent Messiah" slows down into somewhat of a gallop—deftly shapeshifting from passage to passage without much repetition, but retaining a much more subdued tempo throughout. Slightly sludgy up front, then venturing into dissonant black metal chord strums before the solo. As a whole, this piece highlights some of what I assume to be the excellent backing vocals of Legere, as well as—once again—how well-crafted the solos are. With about a minute left, the pace picks up ever-so-slightly and becomes surprisingly energetic/melodic. A number of different atmospheres traversed in this rather linear structure. I cannot for the life of me explain it, but there's something about the passage at 3:52 that makes me think of Destruction's cover of "The Damned" (originally by The Plasmatics). Go figure!?
"House of Thieves"
"Hell Awaits"-styled intro with dueling divebomb squeals, surprisingly giving way to one of the most hardcore/punk-sounding rhythms of the entire affair. Thrashy, driving power chords and there are still solos, but something about the phrasing/arrangement just has a different vibe. This is probably the most straightforward attack of the bunch. Good stuff.
"Giving Life to Tragedy"
Nice, immediate standout here! The dual guitar harmonies catch my ear right away, blending into sort of a fakeout by way of a super short (not quite) clean break, which introduces the vocals within the first 30-ish seconds. Something just feels more "epic" about this one. And... then Dwid makes a guest appearance, ha, perfect, wow! This rules. This is like End Reign's "Jagged Visions...," in a sense. Slower, more melodic, still dark, and extremely powerful. You'll instantly know there's something special about this one. Awesome. My personal favorite from the first playthrough.
The shortest track at just under three minutes, "Chasing Divinity" feels like somewhat of a companion to "House of Thieves" in that there's this undercurrent of metal-punked hardcore. This one's darker and has a different energy, though, with added twists that mask its relatively straightforward charge. The bass tone/presence is extra beefy here, too.
"When Death Comes Crawling"
Damn, more superb dual guitar harmonies, this time in that raw, 1987 G.I.S.M. vein. Yet again, fusing classic hardcore/punk with crispily blackened metal. Another first-spin highlight, and it's at this point that I'm realizing The Way of All Flesh is Decay is one of those albums where side B actually takes the crown! The only reason I've become more concise is that the bulk of the tactics established by the first half remain strong, so I'm not re-reacting to certain fare and would prefer not to repeat myself. Trust me, side B is kicking my ass right now!
"The Night Creeps Upon Me"
I read something about Dokken somehow having been an influence on End Reign (seriously), and this is the only song where I can kinda hear that in about the first 26 seconds. There's just something about the mood of the opening riff (and solo!) that's the slightest bit "rockin'." Granted, when you take that type of influence and contort it into this framework, the result is... you know, not Dokken. So, I'm not at all claiming you should anticipate some fist-banging chorus like "Unchain the Night" or anything. In fact, the bulk of the track is yet another fine example of the perfect balance between thrashy intensity, chugging force, and serpentine darkness.
All that to say, I highly doubt anyone interested in this project will be anything but enthusiastic about this material. Were I to compare/contrast with recent efforts from the members' more notable ties, the blackened edge and ferocity of Celestial Rot are obvious, but End Reign is far more multifaceted than All Out War. Not so wildly explorative as Howling, for the Nightmare Shall Consume, however. And while The Way of All Flesh is Decay may lack the rhythmic complexities of Bloodlet, it's not without its own degrees of technical musicianship and atmospheric flourishes. It's essentially what you'd hope for—and more—in all the best ways.