Written by Kep
Burned in Effigy – Rex Mortem
Melodic death metal from Illinois, USA
Releasing January 28 via independent/self-release
Okay, so here’s the thing: melodic death metal has become a bit of a punchline in modern metal. A wise person (I forgot who it was, if you’re reading this and it was you *finger guns*) once tweeted that melodeath is just power metal with harsh vocals, and that statement has lived in my head rent-free ever since. As funny as it is, though, I like to think my feelings are a tiiiiny bit more nuanced. I divide melodeath into two categories—1, poorly disguised power metal cheese and 2, not that. Burned in Effigy belongs firmly in that second group.
Hailing from Chicago, Burned in Effigy are relatively fresh in the scene; they formed up in 2016 and quietly released a debut EP, Terrestrial, as an instrumental four-piece in 2017. Rex Mortem, their first full-length, is also their first release with a vocalist, and it’ll be the first time their music is heard on the wider plane of the metal scene. And it comes not a moment too soon either, because what this outfit brings to the table—a high-energy, neoclassical take on melody-driven death metal—is quite impressive and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as popular up-and-comers like Vaelmyst and Summoning the Lich. I found that by the time I’d had a little taste of what Rex Mortem had to offer, I was hooked. This album is chock full of leads that earworm their way right into your head and won’t come out, and the moments that will bring you back for more listens are plentiful.
Opening track “Doomsayer” is a scorcher, and Burned in Effigy starts things out by pinning their most obvious influence—The Black Dahlia Murder—to their sleeve with a galloping arpeggio-based riff in triple meter, drums flying at a breathtaking pace underneath. I’d say that vocalist Mark “Smedy” Smedbron does a pretty spot-on job of channeling Trevor Strnad with plenty of larynx-shredding highs and contrasting chesty roars, but that wouldn’t be giving him enough credit, as his performance across the record is superb (and honestly features a bit more variety than most of TBDM’s work). The song barrels straight into one of those earworm melodies over the chorus, a highly consonant tune in triplets that’s the first true indication of how good guitarists Vito Bellino and Brad Dose are at writing melodic motifs that are memorable without reading as cheesy. Hearing it for the first time is a real revelation; all of a sudden it’s clear what Burned in Effigy’s bread and butter is, and why they’re not just a clone of other melodeath outfits.
Plenty of bands like to claim a laundry list of subgenre influences, and often there’s more talk at work than actual evidence for those influences, but Burned in Effigy’s claim is legit, as there’s a whole host of styles at work in Rex Mortem that help the band create a unique take on the melodeath genre. “The Empiricist” pulls hard from the sort of soaring prog metal lines that Dream Theater has made their career on, while the evocative “Atlas” mixes a bunch of inspiring melodic work a la mid-career In Flames with an outstanding djenty groove that wouldn’t be out of place in a Periphery song. You’ll hear impressive technical work frequently, too, both in the riffs and in the impressive solos; this is a particularly active record, where the guitars are always on the move and never sit stagnant in one place. Asymmetrical, meter-shifting passages trade their barbed punches with compelling tuneful material in the stellar “Hades” and blistering tremolo picking dominates passages of lead single “Nightfall”. My favorite track is closer “Vendetta”, which is somewhat ironic after that opening paragraph above, given its transparently power metal-inspired riffage and uber-lyrical chorus.
The individual performances, like the production by Jordon Beal, are great all around: bassist Matt Watkins is dynamic and his lines are infectiously high-octane, drummer Eddie Dec is precise and handles the many tempo and stylistic shifts with flair, and the aforementioned Smedy is a monster on vocals. The real magic, though, comes from the instruments of Bellino and Dose, whose neoclassical tendencies add that extra je ne sais quois to what’s already sparkling, exciting guitarwork. As a classical pianist by trade, I find myself naturally skeptical of outfits that deem themselves “neoclassical”, but Rex Mortem won me over. It’s not just the clean and technical technique on display that did it, either; it’s the way the melodic material in the guitars develops from phrase to phrase. There’s a sense of direction in the chord progressions and in the shape of the melody lines that really does harken back to classical music.
As a final note: I’m exceedingly curious to see where Burned in Effigy goes from here, as in the time between recording Rex Mortem and today they’ve seen the departure of both Bellino and Dose, adding Steve Bacakos and Mike Hisson in their place. For an outfit whose most impressive feature is its guitarwork, losing both guitarists feels like a real blow. Here’s hoping their upward trajectory continues despite that!
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’re looking for a talented new band that writes engaging songs and showcases a plethora of stylistic influences, look no further. Burned in Effigy are here to blow you away with their relentlessly catchy debut LP, and you can expect to dig it if you like quality metal, period. Rex Mortem, as far as I’m concerned, is this year’s Secrypts of the Egochasm by Vaelmyst: a tight powerhouse of a melodeath record that is likely to land the band a deserved swathe of new fans.