In a post #MeToo world, the Bay Area's most psychologically disturbing band takes you into an emotionally and mentally scarring minefield of depravity, eroticism and rending of one's own soul in order to achieve pleasure and bliss.
I don't think it's wild to assume that most things nowadays, whether present in the real world or in fiction, really disturb me on a daily basis. It really takes a lot to make my skin crawl. Cannibal Corpse album covers? C'mon. When I was in 9th grade playing Red Dead Redemption, I would tie people up and leave them on the train tracks just to reenact an Old West trope. It may be surprising to some that in 2019, violence is as common as apple pie and Coca-Cola. You can especially see it when younger children are being brought to R rated films with gratuitous violence in every frame and parents have literally no qualms about it. But what happens when the violence becomes more in line with the disturbed mind? What happens when it has a psychological or psychoanalytical bend to it? Gone is the slapstick humor of Deadpool capping a guy in the twig and berries. You are now presented with the elevator scene from Drive, the studio interview from the recent Joker, the home invasion from A Clockwork Orange or the finger scene from Raw. It's the utter mind bending that allows a band like VASTUM to exercise a massive stranglehold over the minds of their fans. VASTUM are a group that can devastate while they educate. While most other death metal bands are simply content with playing "Hulk smash" and being okay with subpar lyrics, VASTUM continually show their true colors as the Professor Hulk of death metal.
At this point in time, the band pretty much have the markings of a supergroup from a casual viewing. Formed in 2009 by original members in vocalist Dan Butler (Acephalix), guitarist/vocalist Leila Abdul-Rauf (Hammers of Misfortune and Cardinal Wyrm) and bassist Luca Indrio (Acephalix and Necrot), the group released the ridiculously heavy yet catchy Carnal Law in 2011 with guitarist Kyle House (also in Acephalix) and drummer R.D. Davies rounding out the lineup. Davies would soon leave and was replaced by Adam Perry for 2013 fan favorite Patricidal Lust. Soon after the release of the album, Kyle House left and was replaced by powerhouse guitarist Shelby Lermo of Ulthar and Extremity. The band would soon after release their third studio album and personal favorite Hole Below (A Dream of Ritual Abuse) once again through the 20 Buck Spin label.
While each album carries it's own distinct sound and vibe (Carnal Law being more primitive sounding, Patricidal Lust pushing into death doom territory, and Hole Below sounding like the long lost Bolt Thrower album from 1990), the band never forgot their vision amidst the constant lineup changes. Each album carried much of the same lyrical topics while keeping the listener invested with immense riffing, jaw dropping rhythm work and dual vocals from Butler and Abdul-Rauf that send chills down the spine. The band would remain in silence for a spell with only a split with Denver death doom gods Spectral Voice in 2018 to feed the ravenous masses demanding for a new helping of cranial torment. Indrio's Necrot bandmate Chad Gailey was enlisted to fill the drum throne during this period. Little did we know that we would only have to wait seventeen months for the newest and possibly best VASTUM album to date with Orificial Purge. What exactly have the band been keeping locked in the dungeon for so long and are we as a fanbase truly ready for this mental exorcism? It's time to brush up on your psychology and your knowledge of the modern cultural landscape because VASTUM are not here to wave a wand and ask you to frollic; they are strapping you in and forcing you to witness the horror, Ludivico style.
A lot of things have really rocked the cultural landscape in the four year gap between Hole Below and Orificial Purge. Some of those things include the widespread ideals of social justice, the election of quite possibly the most hated President in United States history, and finally, the event that really shun the spotlight on a problem that should have been dealt with decades ago: the #MeToo movement. For the better part of the late months of 2017 and early 2018, the entertainment industry, as well as other industries, began a modern crusade against those who had in the past engaged in malicious sexual harassment and at worst, physical sexual abuse. If you aren't fully aware of this movement at this point, there are more than enough resources for you to dig into. Why do I bring this up? From the very beginning, VASTUM have never shied away from the concepts of shame, despair and agony that perpetuate from the perversion of societal law through the complex lens of sexual deviancy and abuse, as well as the breaking down of those laws and ordinances by any means necessary. If you're lost at this point or you are starting to feel uneasy or uncomfortable, it's probably best you don't continue because the material is not only extremely veiled in metaphor and mystery, but it is also some of the most disgusting and horrific lyrical content you will EVER encounter. The lyrics to this new VASTUM offering Pissgrave's latest record seem like Dolly Parton in comparison. So again, here is your warning because it's time to really dig into the mind of madness.
When reading any of VASTUM's lyrics one must understand the background that it's two songwriters come from. Butler works as a clinical psychologist while Abdul-Rauf holds a B.A. in psychology and linguistics, allowing the band to have a lyrical output that is much more concerned with staying in the library than chugging beer at the frat party all night. In doing that late night studying, they poured over the works of Georges Bataille, Jean Laplanche and St. Augustine to name a few. Some of my personal favorites in terms of lyrical output across the band's discography include Primal Seduction, Seasons in the Claustrum (The Libidinal Spring), 3 AM in Agony, Sodomitic Malevolence, and Empty Breast from Hole Below. With all of that out on the table, one must recognize from the unsettling ambient opening of Dispossessed in Rapture (First Wound) that VASTUM have returned from the shadows and are not willing to bend to any societal pressure.
You may or may not have a slight recollection to some films that were all about psychological terror as this soundscape lulls you in. It reminds one of the haunting Wendy Carlos synth scores for A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. The track slowly builds until the final scream of torture is released and hits like a sledgehammer at full force to the back of your head. Gailey and Indrio bring in the mid paced rhythmic slog as Lermo and Abdul-Rauf begin some rather tasty riff work. Suddenly, all drop out as a lone guitar plays a simple riff. The other instruments return and Butler announces his towering presence once again. His vocal performance is something truly sinister. Leila's refrains make her one of the secret weapons within this band of massive sonic disruption. The riffs build as Butler and Abdul-Rauf trade snarls for bellows as the track builds to the ungodly riff around four minutes in. The remainder of the song includes a delightfully sick solo and the repetition of the drop in/drop out method from the beginning of the song. The song rides the Gailey one foot blast into the final moments as Butler unleashes a near painful yet monastic cry as the mid paced chug and chants return as the track ends on an exasperating gasp of relief or final sigh of the giving up of the ghost.
I will attempt to spin my own interpretations of what each track means to me. While yes, VASTUM bring the riffs, double bass and caveman vocals better than most, it's the intellectual side that draws me to the band even more. Dispossessed in Rapture (First Wound) already has loads of subtext in just it's title alone. The word dispossessed means to deprive and the lyrics reflect the individual's deprivation of something they cannot achieve. Could it be through their own pleasure via harm of someone through physical or sexual means or could it be through the shame of masturbation and the odd sense of guilt one feels after climaxing? Personally, I feel slightly inclined towards the latter with more depth, which I will further elaborate on. The opening begins with the lines "You were there/You put it inside me". Most would think that has to do immediately with molestation, which VASTUM have covered in the past, but I think it goes deeper. "It" could refer to the idea of someone that you are physically attracted to and by envisioning them, you subconsciously feel the need to release through your own sexual pleasures. However, the lyrics also change and discuss hatred and the "absence of my life in your myth". The person you feel attached to sexually in your mind frustrates you because you can't have them in real life and this drives you to feel ashamed in a way. In doing so, you build this fantasy that their lives are mythical and could be more with your presence but will never be so. "Churn in your center/Feel me arrive/Don't lose faith/That this fist is alive" also adds to my interpretation of how the subject could see their turbulent psychological pleasure akin to a hurricane and it's destructive force. The god Eros is mentioned in the latter half of the track as being ablaze. In Greek mythology, Eros was the god of sex, lust and erotic sensual desires. The subject sees that their own inner desires are nothing more than to be set aside simply from not being able to physically pleasure their partner in reality and in the heat of their pleasurable acts.
Yeah, this is the subject matter we are confronting on this LP whether you like it or not. I on the Knife (Second Wound) is another stomper that with it's plucked guts basslines, you may just be listening to Autopsy circa Acts of the Unspeakable. Butler sounds off in a manner akin to a deathly monster that lusts for flesh, in the food and pleasurable sense. Leila once again offers a vile refrain before the dive bomb solo that sounds not too far removed from something you'd hear on Haunting the Chapel. This track has the mid paced slightly faster than other tracks in the band's repertoire such as Amniosis and Re-Member. The signature wails that are heard that add a much creepier ambience than most other death metal bands can conjure. Another wild solo follows and leads right back into Dan's menacing bellow. It's a quick five and a half minute bruiser that will lead to a spot on the setlist for sure. As for the lyrical content, this was one was personally harder to decipher. It talks of the cutting of one's own palms, neck and thighs, and may have something to do with blood sacrifice from certain passages within the Old Testament. Maybe it has to do with the forgiveness of sin through self flagellation much like in the Dark Ages and brought so horrifically to life in the cult classic Hellraiser. It talks about sitting on the knife you cut yourself with. Obviously painful, yet there may be more interpretations from those who come from other frames of mind and background.
Abscess Inside Us leads in with Gailey ripping through blastbeats and Leila leading off the horrific tale that will unfold next. The riffing is slightly different in that it sounds like it could be in a major key, which actually plays into the bands favor. It keeps the record from sounding too one note. The solo around 2:35 oddly brings to mind Nightfall-era Candlemass in it's melodic ascent and descent. Another solo at 3:33 brings the Slayer-esque wail back to really add to the already manic feel of this track. To say that this has hints of Bolt Thrower would be an understatement; it sounds like a long lost track from War Master for hell sakes! However, Leila takes most of the vocal spotlight on this track and she nails EVERY SINGLE MOMENT. While the band in a live setting is often dominated by Butler's commanding aura, Abdul-Rauf can really summon the fantastical spirit of one of her biggest influences, that being Lori Bravo of the cult death metal act Nuclear Death. Seriously, if Leila ever had the idea to form a band that sounded more like them, I would be ecstatic. She channels Bravo in excellent fashion without sounding too similar.
The first lines are immediately jarring despite only being six words in total. "First bliss stripped/She lost interest" took some pondering, but it may have dawned on me after reading and re-reading the lyrics multiple times. For those who choose abstinence from sex, whether through personal or religious reasons, it becomes a blissful event when engaging in intercourse with the partner you've waited for. In my interpretation, the partner may have waited until that fateful day, had their first sexual experience, and then realized that it was not really as eventful and delightful as the outside world may have suggested. As the lyrics progress, it may end with the separation of the subject from their sexual partner through the possibility of the subjects rejection of further sexual activity. "The ghost she left behind/Decayed and grew/Repelled us apart" may be a slight from the other partner knowing that they waited as well only to find that the person they wanted to have this intimate relationship with is no longer interested. Afterwards, the subject may have realized that, now, they want to have an intimate relationship yet are afraid to approach it. In doing so, they put themselves on public display in the most obvious way possible: pornography. The subject encounters many partners and wishes they could stop but ego plays a big part as the "sadistic crowd keeps growing". The abscess may have to do with an STD or quite possibly the unshakeable cancer of pride being goaded by ego, which is a strong component of this tale.
Musically speaking, the title track has a very creepy opening that sounds horrific when Butler re-enters the scene and the riffs enter like a battering ram. Tremolo picking at the two minute mark leads into a dive bomb that will body anyone playing this at a high enough volume. An Undergang-style chug accompanies Dan and Leila's musings of disgust and filth. Gailey's powerful double bass acts as a catalyst for the fist pumping nature of the track. Towards the ending portion of the track, everything speeds up very organically as Butler leads the listener back into the abyss from which he seems to come, Thanos style. When glancing at the lyrics superficially, they may have a slight callback to the monstrous track Incel from Patricidal Lust (2013). While I think that would be a fair approximation, I personally believe that the track goes a tad deeper than that. When examining further, it may have the hints of a subject that subscribes to the mentality of an incel, but they wish to inflict more harm than they believe they are capable of. From my standpoint, this subject has the makings of a Jeffrey Dahmer figure. I feel that when reading "Ribs spread in the breach/Flayed in prostration to animality", I can only envision the horrors that Dahmer inflicted upon his victims, especially when the track talks about "Facing the vermin that I am/Terror coursing through me." Dahmer brought terror to his victims as he systematically dismembered and defiled them to his hearts desire. With lyrics like these, it's just another day in the life of VASTUM.
Reveries In Autophagia is a barnburner in every sinful sense. Leila and Dan go back and forth like Walker and Steer in their prime. It's hideous but oh so delightful. The riffing throughout is water tight and never lets go of your attention as you blissfully bang your head into the wall. Being the shortest track on the album, it has to throttle you from beginning to end and it does not falter at all. The lyrics in this track are very straight forward in my view. The subject derives a sick sexual pleasure from auto cannibalism. While something like this may seem like a common occurrence in death metal lyrics, only VASTUM can invoke the feeling of having to take a shower after hearing this monstrous yarn. They can take just about any horrific subject matter and turn it into the fist pumping mosh anthem they want you to ingest. Here on Orificial Purge, VASTUM have really saved the best, for the lack of a better term, for last.
When the record's track list was initially announced via Instagram, I saw the final track called His Sapphic Longing and said to myself, “Oh yeah this is going to be the most disgusting and disturbing song on the whole damn album.” In hindsight, I think I far undersold how truly evil this song is. A haunting string accompaniment composed by Leila begins this torrid journey into the final dissection of the human psyche. It is a great callback to the scores of the previously mentioned films from Kubrick when soon enough, Gailey, Indrio and Lermo join Leila as the ride, bass and guitars arrive like a swarm of African killer bees. Butler emerges from the chasm and begins his monstrous ode to depravity with Leila offering some of her most vile vocal lines in the band's history. This is also noticeably doomier than the tracks before and it really allows the band to tap into their Incantation/Bolt Thrower side. Leila and Dan’s vocal repetition in the middle section offer moments for hideous usage of black metal-like screams before a chunky bass riff breaks the tension with a solo arriving like an air raid siren in a long deserted town wiped out by disease and war. The monastic whispering returns like a ghost from the primordial fog before the wails of the dying reemerge to signal that the end is nigh at hand. The band are firing on all cylinders now and they are not going to allow anything to stop them as they barrel towards their self inflicted black hole of misery. One final spoken word line from Dan and the record collapses in it’s depraved sexual rapture quasar like, never to be seen again.
From the lyrical perspective, this might be one of the most horrendous tracks that Dan and Leila have ever penned. In my own interpretation, this song is about sexual molestation by a father figure. It could be the actual birth father, a stepfather or even worse ,an ecclesiastical figure. VASTUM’s imagery, and a few of their lyrics, have tackled religion from this angle but I really feel that this might have to do with an ecclesiastical father figure who felt the need to ruin someone’s life in order to satisfy their own sexual appetites. It brings to mind the passage in the New Testament found in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, which reads, “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.” Men of God who turn to the desires of the flesh in this way are the lowest of scum and deserve to face the fires of hell for those transgressions they have committed “in the name of sanctity.” The lines that read “Kiss his feet/Lick his finger/He tells you/You’re a real ride” add to the sickening aura that surrounds the subject matter. Even though men attempt to sit in their own “temple of God” as invincible beings, they will ultimately face punishment in either this life or the next. As a person of faith, stories of this abuse make me sick and wish that these things should not be, however, the world is an evil place and sometimes we must understand the evil in order to destroy it from within and ultimately triumph in the end over the abusers.
Hatred, disgust, horror, evil are all applicable adjectives to describe the music that VASTUM create from a base level. However, what they create to me is a powerful statement that we must confront. Heavy metal culture is often seen by the widespread masses as simply “screaming music with no talent or intellect,” which VASTUM can quickly demolish at will. Some say a college degree means nothing, but Dan Butler and Leila Abdul-Rauf can flaunt those degrees as badges of honor for the lyrics they write. It’s not very often that death metal gets praised for it's lyrical prowess but this band have stepped into territory where no one else would dare set foot. Their lyrics may be too much, their instrumentation may be too aggressive, and their imagery may get a double take from an uneducated casual, but what they do create is something that endears itself to it’s audience despite how brutally in your face they can be. Like the #MeToo movement, VASTUM are here to tell us that while the wicked attempt to hide themselves from the world, they can’t for long because they can’t hide from themselves. Every abusing man and woman will eventually be found guilty by their own state of mind and this is what VASTUM offer a glimpse of through the channel of pure old school death metal barbarity. With Orificial Purge, VASTUM tell the world and the scum that reside in it that they can run and hide for now, but eventually their sins and their own psyche will spell doom for them in the end, knowing that faith has not been lost and that society’s fist is indeed alive.
Orificial Purge is out on October 25th via 20 Buck Spin. Order yours HERE.