‘There’s nothing sexy about it, but ironically that’s what makes it so alluring’ – MacDara Conroy on death metal quintet Vastum’s Hole Below

I feel like I say or think the same thing every 12 months, but 2015 has been another banner year for death metal. The growing willingness of artists to expand their horizons beyond the conservative bounds of metal’s multifarious genre boxes has borne much irresistible fruit, as fans of the Profound Lore label in particular – where the lines between death metal, black metal and broader influences are blurrier than ever – would surely agree.

They’ve closed out another strong year with the joyful riff stew of erstwhile blackened punk-metallers VHOL’s classic-rock-inspired Deeper Than Sky, and the comparatively traditional bludgeon of Charnel Passages, the long-awaited debut full-length from Cruciamentum. Traditional, absolutely – the stench of death is strong with this one – but a decided air of symphonic blackness hovers over these extended meditations on the riff, with blast beats and ghostly keyboards galore.

One of the bigger bands to play last year’s autumnal Siege of Limerick, Cruciamentum imbue these songs – with gloriously prolix titles like ‘Rites To The Abduction Of Essence’ – with even more power live, thanks to their bruising stage presence. (And seeing them hang out in the loft later in the evening, they appear to reinforce the notion of scary metal dudes being amiable chaps in person.)

Charnel Passages would be my pick of the year if not for Vastum, who are a different kettle of neuroses altogether. Splitting the difference between the abyssal atmospheres of Portal and the transcendental death metal of their ilk, and the more direct none-more-evil thrash of the genre’s forebears – Death, Morbid Angel, Deicide, even Bold Thrower – the San Francisco five-piece have taken their sexuo-political take on death metal to a whole new level on Hole Below, their third record for Olympia, Washington label 20 Buck Spin.

Whatever the inspiration for this evolution of their sound, only really hinted at in the confident songwriting of 2013’s Patricidal Lust, it’s a cause for celebration. Guitarist/vocalist Leila Abdul-Rauf’s solo drone explorations on this year’s Insomnia may have something to do with it, informing the greater depth of sonic field she and her bandmates Shelby Lermo (guitar), Luca Indrio (bass), Adam Perry (drums) and Daniel Butler (vocals) conjure up here across six tracks of filth-ridden heft.

Fittingly for its title and the images of various orifice-like things it inspires, Hole Below is a proper ouroboros of a record, its climactic horrid ambience echoing the opening moments of snatched chanting and fragments of noise that coalesce into the disgusting riff monster of ‘Sodomitic Malevolence’, a colossal track that effortlessly shifts gears between downtuned groove, tremolo-picked speed runs and even an acoustic break at the end before the headrush of ‘Amniosis’, which matches its crushing attack with a chorus part that wouldn’t be out of place on a latter-day Grave album.

‘In Sickness And In Death’ and ‘Intrusions’ bring yet more arresting song structures, making much hay from the interplay of changed-up rhythms and riff patterns (not so much the solos, which lack definition compared to the bold strokes around them) and those throat-ripping vocals by Butler and Abdul-Rauf, who are impossible to tell apart most of the time, let alone decipher but for the odd phrase here and there. Aside from the most Incantation-like structural obtuseness, ‘Hole Below (A Dream of Ritual Abuse)’ has the clearest enunciation but even then the lack of context to lines like “cannot hang it on my shadow” or “did not want to fall asleep” evokes quite the sense of unease.

A recent interview Abdul-Rauf gave to Noisey’s Kim Kelly reveals she and Butler work at an institute for psychoanalysis, which explains enough to know that even without their words to hand (no lyric sheet was supplied with the promo) it’s palpable that there’s much more going on here than the usual musings on death and decay and button-pushing. It’s closer in spirit to the kind of thing Killing Joke were doing in the mid–80s, the bodily fluid metaphors of ‘Empty Breast’ a match for ‘Tabazan’ in its sex-as-power frankness. There’s nothing sexy about it, but ironically that’s what makes it so alluring.