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[ALBUM REVIEW] HADAL MAW: Olm

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Hadal Maw has been something of a darling of Australia’s death metal scene since releasing debut album Senium in 2014. That record fell narrowly short of greatness, but the band’s discordant, atmospheric soundscapes in the style of Gorguts garnered them attention in all the right places.

Three years have passed, and it’s clear the Melbourne-based five-piece has pushed hard to develop their sound and particularly their compositional strengths on new album Olm.

My CD arrived in a Maltese-cross digipack design that opens vertically and horizontally to reveal 10 individual panels, seven of which contain hand-drawn illustrations by guitarist Nick Rackham and new vocalist Sam Dillon in charcoal and ink respectively. On both front and rear covers, embossed illustrations and text are stamped in silver foil for a striking result. The impression is deeply professional.

Musically, Hadal has taken giant strides since Senium, progressing as songwriters and also as an ensemble. They’ve upped the technicality yet added more groove and also given songs more space to breathe, all elements that were perhaps lacking on their debut record. Still present are the dark and brooding passages that drip downward like some kind of molasses of despair, but there are hooks now, great big ones that give Hadal’s music a memorable quality, ensnaring the listener and locking riffs in mind.

The ten tracks on Olm are markedly different in style and pace. Hadal is not afraid to draw out the agony, showing the maturity and discipline required to set a scene, build mood and create atmosphere. Here is a band that understands fully the power of tempo, a skill that separates them from the glut of beige, indiscernible one-speed Johnnies that strip modern death metal of its colour and dynamic power by foregoing any musical variation.

By contrast, Hadal embraces almost constant variation, oscillating from passages of bleak, haunting vacuity to infectious, front-foot groove then, finally, red-line rage. It gives the album an unsettling cat-and-mouse flow. Make no mistake – this is a hunt, and the listener is prey, the band circling in the shadows until close enough to explode in an all-out attack and an inevitable kill. The effect is musical lingshi, death by a thousand cuts.

This hunt starts with a good old-fashioned stalking. Slow, chugging openers Leviathan and Affluenza lurch and sway like a pair of drunken boxers, the flurry of competing guitar lines and spasmodic vocals held together only by drummer Rob Brens’ clockwork precision. It’s unpredictable and dangerous, even frightening in places.

There’s always been a coldness to Hadal Maw’s sound, a foreboding sense of dread that invokes desperation and anxiety. To employ the band’s love of murky, subaqueous nightmares and ‘creature from the depths’ imagery, Hadal’s tonal descents can feel as though they’re dragging the listener under, immersing then suffocating them in a place where all light fades, and all hope is gone.

The band kicks up a gear with the marching Failed Harvest in which new vocalist Dillon threatens our obsession with consumption, barking “You’ll thrive in a shallow, shit-filled pool,” while moaning in nihilistic torment, “Don’t we all drag our own soul’s anchors?”

The pace accelerates again in ‘False King’ as duelling lead guitars twist and buck atop a mountain of blasting snares and machine-gun kick drums but it’s the title track and first single Olm where Hadal hits top gear, delivering the album’s most memorable moment – a heavily-syncopated polyrhythm section embellished with soaring harmonic drone that stands as the album’s biggest riff.

Vocally, Dillon is a great addition to the Hadal team. He brings originality and works hard to inject enough diversity to compliment the tapestry of divergence that the band weaves beneath him. His metering is refreshingly unpredictable, and his range enables him to deliver the necessary demonic growls and pain-filled highs in equal measures.

‘Simian Plague’ is his crowning glory and perceivably the point where he completely lost his mind, ending the song with a three-minute cacophony of screams so tortured and black that they seem out of place everywhere but in the final chapters of the black metal handbook. As the band decelerates behind him, this is indeed Hadal’s heaviest moment – the bottom of the sea.

I’d be lying if I said Dillon didn’t remind me of The Amenta‘s Cain Cressall – especially after witnessing his twisted, alien gyrations live – but not enough to be considered derivative.

Lyrically on Olm there’s no shortage of misanthropy, mostly a spitting hatred of the political and social systems that constrain us and a flurry of attacks against ego and consumerism. On Germinate, Dillon laments: “It’s a culture of eat what you can, steal all you can hoard.” On Hyena, he goes further, chastising the listener: “When you’re full of every morsel, will you stop?”

Environmental concerns also appear, expressed mostly as contempt for what humans have done to this planet and their animal cohabiters: “Grand destroyers,” Dillon denounces on Simian Plague, “We humans shall embody parasitic appetence. An artless age descends one stratagem – extinction.”

Given the themes and the level of vitriol, it’s impossible not to suggest Gojira and Cattle Decapitation as possible lyrical influences.

Behind Dillon, performances by the rest of the band achieve the obligatory high standard that the genre demands. Technical proficiency abounds, and everything is squarely in its right place, satisfying the box-like structure of technical death metal while still giving the songs space to breathe.

Guitarists Boyle and Rackham are equally at home delivering palm-muted, staccato riffs alongside droning, open-picked arpeggios and Jim Luxford’s tight, toneful bass lines support this structure by adding depth. Guitar solos are used sparingly, mostly as outbreaks of frenetic tapping, and lead work is generally reserved for tremolo-picked melodic lines and soaring harmonic accompaniments. In this way, Hadal’s approach again sets them apart from their peers, using lead guitar breaks to provide musical enhancement rather than to thrust distasteful statements of virtuosity upon the listener.

On drums Rob Brens shines, his vast arsenal of techniques only surpassed by his tasteful and deeply original composition of drum parts – the mechanical degradation of rhythm at the end of ‘Failed Harvest’ is a masterclass in conveying broken-down chaos while still maintaining control within the pressure of a sliding tempo.

Olm was recorded and mixed by Rackham and Melbourne punk and alternative rock stalwart Sam Johnson out of Johnson’s own Holes and Corners studio. Johnson’s best-known heavy records are from metalcore acts Northlane, The Amity Affliction and In Hearts Wake yet nothing on Olm sounds at all similar to the digital over-processing of modern metalcore. Instead, Rackham and Johnson succeed in dialling in rhythm and bass guitar tones that are raw and abrasive, effect-drenched leads and drums that hit with the dry, humourless impact of a brick to the skull. Treatment of the vocals is reverberant and heavily-layered. Overall, the final mix is tight and violent when required yet expansive and wide open when breadth is needed. It’s also replicable live.

In conclusion, Olm represents a seismic shift for Hadal Maw. It’s an intelligent, flawlessly-executed body of work and the band’s newly-accessible approach to songwriting will attract a slew of new listeners. Fans of the murky, muddy sludge on Senium may feel abandoned but cast them adrift, I say, for Olm is an outstanding example of modern technical death metal that exceeds all the necessary quality hallmarks. This will indeed be the record that puts Hadal on the map.

Olm is out on February 3 via EMP Recordings and available for purchase via Hadal Maw’s Bandcamp at hadalmaw.bandcamp.com. The album features guest appearances from Ne Obliviscaris’ Benjamin Baret and Dan Presland, Departé vocalist Sam Dishington and Jake the Stripper vocalist Luke Frizon.

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