Bereft’s dance with death takes new morbid spin on debut ‘Leichenhaus’

A metal album focused on death isn’t exactly a novel concept. There are sub-genres built on that idea, so devoting an entire long-player to the end of one’s existence may not draw in listeners who have tired of the whole thing. But if you have a new way of doing it, a fresh approach, well, that’s an entirely different story.

California-based Bereft do the death thing, sure, but not in a way you’ve perhaps heard before. Instead of just taking on the idea of expiration, they dig a little deeper, get a little more psychological, and delve into cultures foreign to many people. Their debut record “Leichenhaus” (German for mortuary), and the bulk of the album deals with a waiting mortuary, a place used by people in eras past (19th century Germans, for example) to house the recently deceased for a period of time just to ensure they are, in fact, dead. Those people didn’t have the gift of modern science (or for our more conservative readers, WITCHCRAFT!) we have today, so to ensure they wouldn’t bury some poor schmuck alive, they housed their inanimate bodies in these buildings. If there was a sign of life, bells would be rung (check the album art) to alert others that the person’s death was premature. The record also deals with sky burial, a funerary practice used by Tibetans and Buddhists, where a deceased body would be cut deeply, placed in an area such as a mountaintop and left for the natural elements or animals/birds of prey to pick apart. The body, after all, is seen as a vessel, and the process of such burial feeds into the concept of rebirth. That’s a lot of digest (seriously, no pun intended), but it helps having a grasp on the ideas when tackling this mammoth slab of plodding doom metal.

Even though this is their debut, Bereft are not newcomers. The lineup is comprised of vocalist/guitarist Charles Elliott (Abysmal Dawn), guitarist Sacha Dunable (Intronaut, Graviton), bassist Derek Rydquist (ex-The Faceless), and drummer Derek Donley (National Sunday Law/Graviton). Yet if you take what you know of all of the dudes’ regular bands and add it all together, you won’t get what you hear on “Leichenhaus.” There’s a decided departure from what these guys normally do musically, and that alone is quite a kick to the sternum when you first hear the outright, bloody heaviness of this all. Sure, Elliott growls and howls with the best of them fronting Abysmal Dawn, but he digs deeper into his guts and unleashes some vocals that will boil your organs. All the other guys contribute backing vocals now and then (Dunable’s being the most distinctive), but their primary duties are dumping buckets of sludge and muck all over the surface of this record. It’s suffocating in the get-the-elephant-off-my-chest manner.

The record opens with “Corpse Flower,” an instrumental immersed in a cloud of drone and feedback, with guitars swirling in the air, sounding like a siren, and that leads right into “Mentality of the Inanimate,” a track that needs no lyrical explanation based on its title. The song is lurching and hulking, with just a hint of melody oozing behind, and Elliott’s vocals remind me a bit of the brilliant work of Damon Good (Mournful Congregation). “Withered Efflorescence” takes on some spacey qualities, and there’s an introduction that’s built partially on acoustic guitar work. The vocals are deep and wrenching, and the song eventually achieves a crunchy, massive tidal wave of terror. “The Coldest Orchestra,” with lyrics penned by Nicole Pasco, is trickling and atmospheric, but it also hits a nice sludge groove, gets some callback vocals (Dunable is most recognizable here), and the song strikes a perfect emotional pitch, leaving you breathless at the end. “A Cruel Mirage” is one of the weirdest songs on the album, but it never disappoints in leveling you with filthy heaviness, while “Ethereal Dispersal” just may turn you into a spiritual wreck, as these guys channel the feelings in their hearts and guts and lay everything on the line. The guitar work is dark and troubling, the chants are other-wordly, and the sorrow and release are expressed expertly. That actually would be enough if they ended there, but closer “And You Are But a Thought” feels like the spirit passing on to another plane, with lines grasped from Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger” that really hit the point in a chilling, eerie way. It’s a little uncomfortable, to be honest, but it’s good to feel that way sometimes.

“Leichenhaus” is an incredibly impressive, moving debut record that isn’t your run-of-the-mill doom sludge or death chronicle. It makes you think, dream, and research, and despite what some people who aim to run the government of the United States may think, it’s healthy and positive to immerse oneself in another culture’s customs, even ones as morbid as these. We’re all headed down this path one day, sad to say, and this record could give us pause to consider just what that journey may entail.

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