Written by Kep
Mithridatum – Harrowing
> Dissonant death metal
> Releasing February 3
> Willowtip Records
I love an album that feels like being stuck in a morass of black quicksand while felt but unseen eldritch horrors scream from out of the darkness and the stars and planets spin and twist in a whirling chaos above and beneath. Give me all that spiraling chaos, opaque maelstroms of gloomy violence that shut you inside like the center of a brooding dissonance tornado. Bands like Ulcerate and Sunless and Nightmarer and Dysgnostic: nice and riffy, sure, but every bit as drenched in oppressive atmosphere as they are filled with killer musicianship.
Mithridatum, a new US-based three-man outfit, offers up this sort of experience with their debut effort Harrowing, and what a goddamn experience it is. Wave after unrelenting wave of turmoil, sharp angularity juxtaposed against an all-consuming agitated sea of distorted sound, always swirling; each journey through the album’s runtime is setting yourself adrift in a pathetically small vessel, knowing that all you can do is keep your head down and hope to make it out on the other side of the turmoil. It’s compelling and surprisingly nuanced stuff, and that’s made all the more impressive considering this is the project’s first release.
The members of Mithridatum are all veterans of the metal scene, which goes a long way toward explaining how they’ve produced such a well-written freshman effort. Guitarist Marlon Friday and guitarist/bassist/drummer Lyle Cooper are both members of techdeath crew Abhorrent and grindcore four-piece Absvrdist, and both Cooper and vocalist Geoff Ficco did a stint with The Faceless. You wouldn’t need to know all that to understand that these guys are remarkable songwriters, though; the proof is in the songs themselves.
Harrowing is a very cohesive listen with distinct individual tracks that feel related to one another. While some moments are almost hypnotic, like the repeating guitar lines that open “Mournful Glow” while the drums gradually build, and a vast majority are more like being crushed by an enormous wall of sound, they always fit deftly together. Lead single and opener “Sojourn” is a great example, with minutes of blasting violence and Friday and Cooper’s characteristic twanging minor intervals hanging uncannily within the gale, the bedlam broken only briefly in the middle by a trance-like moment of dreadful near-calm that features a chromatic up-and-down motif and quickly builds it back to full hurricane-force.
Friday and Cooper’s stylings are fascinating, ranging from measured dual harmonies that bend and twist at unnatural angles—as heard in the opening of “Lower Power”, for example—to menacing tremolo-picked shapes and simple blurry sustained motifs that repeat at length within a larger noisy chaos. Closer “The Passageway” is a powerhouse track that includes a little bit of everything, including some understated playing in the middle section that shows off Mithridatum’s ability to make simpler moments feel oddly ominous. Vocalist Geoff Ficco does a great job snarling and growling within and just above the texture, even using a bit of spoken word here and there, managing to strike a tricky balance between menacing and distressed as suits the philosophical speculation and despair that makes up Harrowing’s lyrical material. Ficco’s voice isn’t a driving force here—he’s merely expressing the thoughts embodied in the music.
The highlight of the entire record for me is Cooper’s performance behind the kit. With five long-ish tracks across its 35 minutes, you might worry that the songs could drag or get a little monotonous, but those drums keep things fresh from start to finish. Cooper’s playing is outstandingly varied without ever feeling out of style, shifting chameleon-like, adjusting rhythmic emphases amidst those angular riffs with a degree of refinement that caught my ear over and over again. The transitions are always buttery smooth—there’s an effortlessness to the way he alternates between speedy blasts and multiple variations of almost-chill 4/4 in “Silhouette”—and the accent hits added into established patterns are delightfully off-kilter. He’s great at subtly altering the feel of the guitars from beneath, like in “Lower Power”: there’s this nasty little take on a classic driving riff just after two minutes in that he accompanies in with a simple energetic jam beat, but it feels far more menacing and dark when he blasts mercilessly soon after.
On the subject of critiques I have very little to say, which is a testament to Harrowing’s cohesiveness and the quality of the production—the latter is particularly good, the individual elements each have clarity and tasty grit and are balanced about as well as you could hope to create that stormy churning texture. The one and only thing that bugged me was the album’s final moments; the ending of “The Passageway” is so abrupt (and there’s no empty space in the master before the track’s runtime ends) that I still wonder if my promo copy had its ending accidentally cut short. It’s an unexpectedly jarring finish an otherwise engrossing listen.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Here in the first several weeks of 2023, Mithridatum’s Harrowing stands out as for its grim atmosphere and impressive songwriting. This is a listen that will deposit you directly within a churning maelstrom, but there’s such a wealth of detail and nuance within the storm that you’ll keep coming back and finding more things to love. Make sure to give these guys your ears on February 3.