Label: Willowtip Records
Release Date: February 3, 2022
Location: International: United States and Italy
Review Author: Christian Voltaggio
Mithridatum is a three piece dissonant death metal band made up of Marlon Friday (Abhorrent, Absvrdist) on guitars, Geoff Ficco (ex-The Faceless, Organe) on vocals, and Lyle Cooper (ex-The Faceless, Absvrdist) playing drums, bass, and guitars. This album, entitled Harrowing, is the band’s first release. Harrowing is a winding journey across bleak landscapes of death and delirium where you can rest assured that nothing beautiful will interrupt the dense vista of greyness that the band creates throughout this 36 minute trip. Fans of death metal will surely have taken piqued interest in the project knowing the legacy of Cooper and Ficco, who collaborated during their mutual stint in The Faceless, however, if you’re here seeking a return to that vibe, you will not be satisfied – this is a very different beast.
Sojourn sees us descend into the despondent hopelessness pervading this record as an introductory chord sequence gives way to blasts, ringing sustained guitar arpeggios, and heaps of dissonance. Anyone familiar with Lyle Cooper’s drumming knows to expect loads of chops, and he definitely delivers with more restraint as compared to the all-out technical showcase he is known for during his time in The Faceless. Ficco, who also did a fantastic job on The Faceless’s Autotheism is suitably raspy and powerful, evoking suffering with every syllable. Sojourn changes gears somewhat about half way through as a spoken word line brings us into a shift in feel. The dissonance is piled on in heaps here as open strings are constantly ringing out against one another. Any type of typical “guitar moves” are absent – this is very deliberately non-cliche melody writing, so don’t expect recognizable chord progression or typical song structure. It’s unclear how the guitar duties are split between Cooper and Friday, but the playing is all tight, precise, and clear despite the gain-laden guitar tone on this record. Somewhat disappointingly, the bass is a bit buried. While certainly audible, they went for a warmer, low bass tone with minimal attack, so while there is enough bottom end to keep things from feeling hollow or lacking gravity, bass is sadly not often a competitor for your attention.
I want to take a moment to discuss the lyrics on Harrowing. It took two listens through the record before reading the lyrics, but knowing exactly what Ficco is referencing truly took the experience over the top. To be blunt, I was feeling ambivalent about this album after those first two listens – it is unapologetically dense material that seemed to wallow in its own complex sense of misery, until it all connected through Ficco’s lyrics. A loving dedication to the memory of his brother Dan and the lines in this track which ostensibly point to a tragic struggle with depression lend an incredible humanity and emotional depth to everything going on here. The darkness upon darkness takes on an all too real meaning through Ficco’s words and provides an absolutely essential piece of Harrowing, perhaps even its strongest element. Anyone who has been affected by depression or mental illness will recognize the reality of the seemingly otherworldly realm established therein. “When the weight is invisible no one sees your strength.”
Track two of five, entitled Silhouette begins with more of the dissonant ringing guitars we were thoroughly introduced to in the prior track. Those initiated into the dissonant death metal subgenre will likely perceive some similarities to Alluvial or Ulcerate. Surprisingly, we transition briefly from this labyrinthine doom and gloom into a straight ahead, rocking, 4/4 groove one might expect to hear on a thrash record. It does deliver a breath of fresh air, but a nearly “rock n’ roll” vibe feels borderline inappropriate here. Cooper thoroughly dominates this tune with varied hi-hats and constant fills as the notion that drums might have usurped guitar as the lead instrument in this band seems more credible by the second. A section around 5:45 sees the beat displaced behind some monstrously huge chords for the standout moment on the track.
Mournful Glow marks the midway point across Harrowing and the bass shows up, forward in the mix to lend serpentine movement to the constant ringing dissonance. Cooper goes off here, his playing approaching drum solo territory and it’s a glorious moment. I don’t think anyone is surprised to hear that Lyle Cooper ‘drums good’, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t deserve special mention, because his playing rips. I’ve described at length the dissonance, ringing notes, and open string riffs that feature heavily in Mithridatum’s music and during my first few listens through the album, I felt as though this leaden blanket of generally similar guitar playing was overly samey. To an extent, I feel that this remains true, but this track does the best job of varying things without losing the plot, leaving it head and shoulders above the four other songs on offer.
Another strong track in Lower Power brings some truly creepy moments through Ficco’s vocals which seem to appear on the outer edges of the stereo image, giving the feeling of wanting to turn around to see who is whispering over your shoulder, a feature which was especially enjoyable while listening through headphones. Throughout the record, Ficco delivers a solid vocal performance, his rasping scream lining up perfectly with the lyrical themes regarding mortality, mental anguish, regret, finality, and the general suffering and impermanence that is unavoidably part of the human experience. Overall, this track stands out somewhat through its success in building disturbingly real rising tension and anxiety, as opposed to meandering through, haphazardly. Punctuated by a second surprisingly “rockin” moment around the 2:10 mark, albeit in a way that blends into the track without breaking immersion as opposed to Silhouette.
The final track of the record, The Passageway brings an ominous opening featuring one of the more quiet moments on the album. Seemingly speaking directly to his brother, the emotional intimacy of Ficco’s lyrics is powerful to say the least, creating grounded connection in a genre that can oftentimes stray into the fantastical and the absurd, ignoring that real life can and will provide tragically powerful inspiration. A sense of descending pervades as we experience death visions at the finale of a life while a shred of hope remains for the catharsis between reunited brothers. An appropriately sudden ending closes out the album, creating powerful silence afterward. While not necessarily the strongest track of the record structurally, The Passageway is an intense emotional peak.
Harrowing is a strong first impression for Mithridatrum. My issues with this record are slight, but present nonetheless: a lack of diversity in the guitar playing is a sticking point as I feel strongly that more leads or even a couple of solos would have taken this from solid to extraordinary. The bass being somewhat buried is a stylistic choice to be sure, and while not lacking for low end, a more up front place in the mix would have added another contrasting element to the wall of ringing dissonant guitars that can get to be a bit samey, even within the relatively brief 36 minute span. All this aside, this record has clear and balanced modern production that does a great job of making space for some very distorted guitars and extremely busy drumming. I also appreciate the vocals were not mixed so far up as to be distracting – as they are, they are balanced next to the instruments, as opposed to on top of them. Lyrically, Harrowing is a deeply personal album that creates dread and horror in spades without resorting to fancifully unrelatable subject matter. This recording experience must have been incredibly cathartic as listening to it certainly was, and I applaud the bravery of choosing to tackle such personal subject matter so openly.
Overall, Harrowing is quality dissonant death metal that falls just short of extraordinary, but sets up a solid start to what I hope is a long and fruitful career for the trio. I anticipate any future live performance of this material will be a must-see and I eagerly await that possibility. Check out Mithridatum, pick up the record if you’re a dissonant death metal fan, and definitely keep your ears peeled for the next one.
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