Belgium’s La Muerte may have gained a bit more exposure worldwide with their 2018 self-titled comeback album, but their roots stretch all the way back to 1984. Over a span of ten years the band released a handful of raw and unpredictable albums that had a bit of punk, noise rock, blues, and everything in between. What I’ve heard of 1989’s Death Race 2000 feels like The Stooges and the industrial pulse of earlier Swans with a blues swagger, and that’s simplifying things down. The current version of the group features two original members alongside three new ones, and it brought a more metallic sheen and grittier imagery with it. Gone were the brighter, almost psychedelic album covers of the earlier days, and this year’s Sortilegia features a twisted collage that wouldn’t feel out of place on an Eyehategod record. For this second release following their reformation La Muerte has remained as unpredictable as ever, still pulling in elements of punk and noise rock while pivoting towards a denser and darker sound that channels just as much sludge and doom. It’s a lot to take in and will likely need a few listens to fully unravel, but those who choose to do so will discover plenty of substance beneath the surface.
La Muerte’s 2018 effort had plenty of metallic tonality, but it’s immediately clear from the opening notes of the title track that this has been expanded upon significantly on Sortilegia. Listeners are met with the type of lumbering, dense tones that have more in common with sludge and doom, and the sound only gets thicker as the song progresses. At times it sounds like the guitar and bass are trying to actively play over each other and see who can be the loudest, resulting in a soundscape where the instruments seem to crash into each other and create a looser and chaotic feel. La Muerte is hardly your straightforward doom band either given their genre shapeshifting I described in the last paragraph, and while you will hear a few lumbering grooves on tracks like “Keep Your Secret” there’s a lot more at work throughout the album. Tracks like “Pontiac Firebird” bring in some of that bluesy swagger and sharpness of noise rock, while “Snake In My Hand” has the looser feel of stoner rock/metal. With how dense the production is it may take a few times through to start to really focus in on the individual riffs, and while I’m sure that was a deliberate approach it does make a few of the songs run together initially. But once you peel back the layers it becomes clear that the instrumentals are filled with diverse tempos and quirkier elements while striving to be as heavy and dark as possible. It gives La Muerte a sound somewhere between the rawer sides of rock and darker variants of doom while still putting them squarely in their own camp, and that’s kept me returning to the album. Closing track “Longue Misere” does feel a bit overstretched though, especially coming in after the equally lengthy “Keep Your Secret”, which dampens the impact of the second half of the album slightly.
While there are some strange sounding and unexpected elements to the instrumentals, it’s the vocal work that is likely to make La Muerte stick out to many listeners. The singer’s voice is so low and distorted that it comes in somewhere between yelling, growling, and something downright inhuman. Considering the band promo pictures feature who I assume to be the vocalist wearing a burlap sack, it sounds like he recorded the entire album wearing said sack and the performance only seems to get more unhinged the further in you get. This suits the somewhat nightmarish sound the rest of the band comes up with at times, and when you combine this with spoken word and the occasional gang vocals you have something that sounds downright different. With the density of the production the vocals do sound just a bit too buried at times, and while this was likely a deliberate decision on the part of the band I think it would’ve actually made La Muerte even more intense if they were slightly clearer.
Sortilegia proves to be a strange beast, but that’s been true throughout La Muerte’s discography. They’ve headed far more in a metal-oriented direction for this album, pulling in elements of doom and sludge alongside a dense production that makes for a disorienting and nightmarish sound. Yet the hints of their rock and punk roots give a sound different from most out there, and that leaves a lasting impression. I do think putting both of the lengthiest tracks at the end hurts the pacing and would’ve liked the vocals to be a bit clearer, but don’t let this album slip under your radar if you want something a bit unique and abrasive. Sortilegia is available from Consouling Sounds and COP International.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg