Downfall of Gaia create atmosphere on debut Metal Blade release ‘Suffocation’

I’ve always been humbled and fascinated (and sometimes frightened) by the power of nature. It’s a force you cannot do anything to stop, and I learned a huge lesson about that this summer when I paid little attention to crashing waves in the Atlantic Ocean, got turned upside down, dragged to shore, and was parted with one of my teeth. Hurt like a bitch, but it was a hell of a reminder.

From my perch near the top of a building downtown at my job, I get to see rolling fog, torrential thunderstorms, and all kind of crazy things formulate and move, and it never ceases to blow me away. Those conditions also generally influence my playlist at work, and I’m generally working through whatever project is at hand with some kind of sound in my ears, normally chosen by what the weather outside looks like. I know not everyone considers Immortal to be a serious, don’t-mess-with force now and that they’re kind of poster children for the whole panda bear, ridiculous persona culture of some black metal, but listen to them during a blizzard while driving. It all makes sense in a way you can’t comprehend if it’s sunny and calm outside.

This week and last, we’ve had some foggy, rainy days that made the city seem as if it was pocketed in the clouds. Often times, it’s hard to see the river below or the traffic-filled bridge across the way, and those days make bands like Germany’s Downfall of Gaia really register. Despite a more sludgy, aggressive first few years as a band, they’ve evened out their sound and gone for a more atmospheric approach. Their stuff reminds me of all kind of bands, from ISIS to Cult of Luna to Altar of Plagues to Morne to countrymates Imperium Dekadenz, and their new record “Suffocation in the Swarm of Plagues” should be quite the introduction for them to the larger audience their label Metal Blade no doubt will provide.

If you’re not familiar with the band, I’m sure that introduction is one you’ve read for many young groups looking to gaze out and do lengthy songs designed to create a mood. It’s because you have. There are tons of bands of the ilk trying to make their way into an overcrowded subgenre, but it all boils down to spending time with the music. And the more I listen to “Suffocation,” the more impressed I am by the band’s ambition and their playing. You can feel these songs register inside of you, and they never come off like a band trying to ride coattails. There’s an honesty and integrity to their playing, and their music made an excellent soundtrack these past couple weeks any time the world outside was being drenched in precipitation and clouds. This was exactly what I needed to hear.

Another thing I find astonishing is that there are only four members of Downfall of Gaia. Sure, lots can be done in the studio to beef up sound and whatnot, but this quartet–guitarist/vocalist Dominik Goncalves dos Reis, guitarist/vocalist Peter Wolff, bassist/vocalist Anton Lisovoj, and drummer Johannes Stoltenburg–really make the most of every section of this album. They combine post-metal, shoegaze, doom, black metal, and some hardcore into their expansive package that grows more involved and effective each time you go back and listen.

The record essentially is five lenghty tracks sandwiched in between two hazy instrumental cuts–“[Vulnus]” and “[Asphyxia]”–acting as intro and outro. The album is a concept record that describes a man who cannot sleep, and the longer he goes without rest, the closer he gets to dissolving into insanity. I think we’ve all been there before, but maybe not to this extent. The tale effectively opens on “Drowning By Wind,” a wailing track with howled vocals, volcanic energy, and passionate playing that ramps up the drama and bleeds into “In the Rivers Bleak.” That cut is more punishing and violent, with the vocals taking on a throatier finish, and the atmosphere filled with lightning. “I Fade Away” begins with cleaner tones and a sense of calm before it’s ripped open at the seams, manic ferocity bleeds forth, and the organic explosion rolls by in nine minutes that never feel nearly that long.

“Beneath the Crown of Cranes” seems more calculated and channeled, not that they’re not still in the mood to blister you. The song is murky and serene at times, convulsive and threatening in others, and the song ends with a sense that reeks of desperation on the part of the central character of the plot. “Giving Their Heir to the Masses” attempts to pack everything into one nearly 10-minute blast, with gorgeous melodies, some of the tougher, angrier vocal work on the entire album, long pockets of noise and feedback, and a final assault that’s smeared with metallic rage and inhuman shrieks. Then the record fades away with the outro cut “[Asphyxia],” where you can float off with the protagonist, either to the long-needed rest or to the end of the line, where everything fades away.

It’s great to see Metal Blade take a chance on a band like Downfall of Gaia, who otherwise would have released this expansive piece of work on the DIY labels with which they’ve shared an association. Not that there wouldn’t have been merit to that path, but having such a noteworthy label behind “Suffocation in the Swarm of Plagues” means tons more people will be exposed to this great effort than would have been otherwise. This record deserves to be heard by any metal listener who likes to expand horizons, and they truly establish themselves as a special act in a sea of like-minded bands.

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