Reviewed By Michael O'Brien
I’ve been in a pretty unhappy relationship with technical death metal for quite a while now. From my perspective, it seems as though the overriding trend these days is for a lot of the bands in this sphere to occupy one of two extremes: the churning, ultra-murky extreme or the hyper-technical-at-the-expense-of song-writing one. To be honest, both of these approaches hold limited appeal for me beyond a certain point, which in the case of an album of regular length is roughly around the halfway point. More than 15 or 20 minutes or so and I just lose interest in what I'm hearing.
Where both of these approaches tend to lose me is that they either focus too much on atmosphere, in the case of the former extreme, or too much on technicality, in the latter case. These are both excellent attributes to possess, of course, but what I really prize over all else is hooks and riffs. Sadly, the art of writing a song in the tech death space that prioritises these qualities as much as I do seems to be rapidly dying, or is at least held in a lower esteem than I would like.
But while there is a lot about modern technical death metal that turns me off, I’m still invested enough in the genre to hold out hope that something out there will grab me. With their debut full length, Urraca, Sunless bring a progressive bent to the tech death equation, crafting an album that favours hooks and vibe over flashy showmanship, and have come closer to bringing me back into the fold than just about any other release that I've heard in recent years.
Sunless share much in common with dissonant and technical bands like Gorguts, Ad Nauseam, and Ulcerate, but their progressive slant and their tendency to focus their riffs around the lower registers gives them a modicum of distinctiveness, despite the obvious similarities. Crafting a truly unique sound in any genre you care to mention is nigh on impossible these days, so the fact that Sunless have managed to find a way to stand out, however slightly, is impressive.
From a compositional perspective, this is some pretty dense material, and repeated listens will be required before all of the album's secrets reveal themselves. As mentioned, it doesn't necessarily present itself as being overly flashy, but that doesn't mean that it isn't also extremely complex and technical despite its reluctance to show off, and its tendency towards a form of coyness makes for a deceptive first few listens.
On top of the compositional qualities, the album sounds fantastic as well. The production is some of the most dynamic I've heard in this space for a long time, with each of the instruments afforded plenty of breathing room and clarity, while it also brings the kind of dense heaviness that befits material of this kind. It's a shame more bands aren't willing or aren't able to give their albums the kind of dynamics Urraca has, because the results speak for themselves.
If I had to make a complaint, it would be a similar one to the one I made at the beginning of this review. For all of its truly positive compositional attributes, a feeling of numbness to its charms creeps in in Urraca’s second half, and it's largely because, by that point, it feels as though Sunless have shown off all of the weapons in their arsenal. They still wield them effectively, no doubt, but the potency is slightly diminished for me and a feeling of ambivalence takes over.
Overall, I've been very impressed with Urraca. I wouldn't say that it's been quite enough to drag me back into the tech death fold without reservation, but it's gone a long way towards addressing the numerous issues I have with the genre.