Heads For The Dead – Serpent’s Curse

Band: Heads For The Dead
Title: Serpent’s Curse
Label: Transcending Obscurity Records
Release Date: 24 September 2018
Country: UK/ Germany
Format reviewed: Digital

When I saw The Revenant in a cinema in Cardiff some years ago there were two key moments. The first was right at the start of the movie when I noticed how the position of the camera, right down at gut level, made the action (violence) all the more visceral. You were in the midst of the carnage and there was no escape. The second key moment was where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, having been mauled by a bear, crawls excruciatingly slowly over frozen ground in an extended shot that seems to last 5 minutes. I remember at that moment wondering to myself “is this entertainment?” and I thought well maybe it isn’t, maybe entertainment is not the aim here and instead just living through it, or feeling like you’re the one living through it, is the point. ‘Serpent’s Curse’ by Death Metal super-group Heads For the Dead (Revel In Flesh, Wombbath) could be the soundtrack to a smashed skull, or incineration within a sealed chamber. However, unlike The Revenant, where there is some kind of intermittent relief, during periods of extended dialogue, or slow build up toward some brutal scene, ‘Serpent’s Curse’ offers the listener none.

For sure there are dynamics. During my first listen, I felt that I was hearing something impressive. There was a distinct sound and atmosphere, the playing was brutal and heavy, but always precise, and it just somehow felt convincing. I believed I was in this world. On the other hand, I thought perhaps the relentless battery was a bit lacking in colour, or shade. However, repeated listens start to reveal the brilliance of the shifts and flows within the onslaught. Almost every moment on this album feels like some kind of violent assault, or the sound of something monstrous remorselessly stalking through a landscape of destruction. On ‘Of Wrath and Vengeance’ I’m being dragged up a cliff face by my ears one moment, the next I’m flung down a precipice, smashing my face over and over again as I plummet, all the while under a pressure so oppressive I imagine a battleground in the midst of an atomic explosion.

The overall sound of the album is deep and heavy. Electric guitar lines and atmospheric synths are peppered over the tracks, but unlike much of the output of say Cannibal Corpse or Morbid Angel, ‘Serpent’s Curse’ doesn’t showcase flashy musicianship. When the solos do come, as in ‘Deep Below’, it feels like an organic part of the overall sense of pressure, which is pounding down on you. The riffing moves between rapid fire assault and slow seething pounding and while the playing is always precise and powerful, it’s the overall atmosphere created on the album that really stands out for me. If the band was at all sloppy this wouldn’t be possible.

From the opening title track the weight is palpable, but not at the expense of momentum. It’s a brutally powerful opening. With barely a moment’s pause, the next track ‘Heads for the Dead’ somehow brings the intensity up another level with a hammering barrage, like an avalanche of lead. Track after track I’m in a storm, underwater, in a mudslide, swept up in a tornado. Some bands incorporate atmospheric interludes or acoustic passages for the listener to catch their breath. Sometimes these dynamics are welcome. ‘Serpent’s Curse’ doesn’t allow this kind of break in intensity. When you aren’t being smashed over the head, you’re still crawling on the surface of the sun, with fire in your lungs.

Subtlety is a strange quality to try to attach to any Death Metal, but in some way this album could at least be called understated. Some death metal bands, like Immolation, combine their brutal attack with flashes of guitar virtuosity and sudden dizzying shifts in rhythm and speed. ‘Serpent’s Curse’ doesn’t deal in this kind of showiness and it’s not a criticism of one way or the other; it’s a different approach rather than a deficit. Like the best musical experiences, this is not a recording to be critiqued and pulled apart, to say “oh they could have done this there, cut this out, added something here”. No, you’ve just been mauled by a bear, thrown down a mineshaft and smashed by a boulder. Just be thankful you’re still breathing. 10/10 Tom

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10/10 Immortal classic
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