Written by Kep
Tzompantli – Tlazcaltiliztli
Death/doom from California, US
Releasing May 5 via 20 Buck Spin
There’s a movement of indigenous metal happening in the underground right before our very eyes, and not a moment too soon if you ask me. It’s impressive stuff, too: projects like Black Braid, Maȟpíya Lúta, and Ysyry Mollvün have made serious waves in the black metal community already this year. In the same vein but taking a distinctly more death-forward approach is Tzompantli, a Southern California-based outfit whose excellent 2019 EP you might have missed. You won’t be able to miss this record, though, because you’ll be seeing it on various “Best of” mid-year lists.
Folks, Tlazcaltiliztli is a hell of a goddamn album. It’s unbelievably heavy, the addictive riffs will bring you back over and over, and the way it blends indigenous instruments and imagery into the sound is exceptional. You probably won’t be surprised by its quality if you know anything about some of the members’ other bands: frontman Huey Itztekwanotl o))) is the guitarist for peerless death metal/hardcore outfit Xibalba and drummer Erol Ulug fronts California crushers Teeth. I love both of those bands, but now I love Tzompantli more.
The indigenous nature of their music and themes is the heart and soul of everything you hear on Tlazcaltiliztli. The band’s name is a reference to the ceremonial racks that ancient civilizations used to display the skulls of human sacrifices or enemies captured in combat. Like many indigenous objects, the tzompantli can be observed in cultures across the Americas, including Maya, Aztec, and Toltec, and the band has similarly dedicated the album to all the indigenous tribes and peoples of the western hemisphere. You’ll hear that dedication from the very first moment: intro track “Yaohuehuetl” opens with traditional huehuetl drumming, a slow build that’s joined by shakers and haunting whistles and shells. The authenticity of these sounds is part of what makes the album so meaningful; Itztekwanotl o))), bassist G-Bone, and guest performer Mateotl Gonzalez perform all the instruments themselves, including the distinctive teponatzli, which has a remarkably tuneful, hollow tone.
The individual songs are already impressive, riff-fests all around that will flatten you like a steamroller. For example, the pummeling, chugging main riff of title track “Tlazcaltiliztli” is probably the single catchiest that I’ve heard this year so far, and the wild hardcore-influenced passage that hits around its midpoint is just icing on the cake. The track also takes a diversion through OSDM and then delivers a riff that feels like a fatter, doomier version of “Scourge of Iron”. Tzompantli dishes up moment after moment like these that will have you headbanging in your living room or pausing to take in a desolate melody: the way that mercilessly pounding monstrosity “Ohtlatocopailcahualuztli” transitions into mournful Evoken-esque dirging, the eerie clean tones in the opening of “Tlatzintilli” that bring diSEMBOWELMENT to mind, the straight-up death metal riffage of “Tlamanalli” that will more than satisfy OSDM-heads.
It’s objectively good shit that already measures up to the titans of death/doom, is what I’m saying, but the indigenous elements woven into that death/doom fabric are the thing that makes the record unforgettable. For example, just before “Tlatzintilli” reaches the end of its crushing intro there’s a chilling death whistle that will utterly freeze you, a cry to signal the arrival of blasting destruction. The lyrics further entwine these elements inextricably into the music’s texture, with verse that references history, belief, and ritual throughout.
The literal and figurative heart of the album, though, and the best example of this intermingling of musical cultures is in centerpiece “Eltequi”—which translates to “to cut the chest open and remove the heart as part of ritual human sacrifice”. This track is an absolute triumph, a true marriage of death metal with indigenous instruments and themes that I’ve never heard the likes of before. Traditional drums, shakers, shells, and whistles stand shoulder to shoulder with electric and acoustic guitars and menacing gang vocals in a ritualistic number that has lasting impact. It’s a hell of a moment, and will be one of the biggest reasons that people like me keep returning to this record.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I don’t want to understate this: Tlazcaltiliztli is the most impressive death/doom album so far in 2022. But beyond that, it’s an important piece of music that takes metal to a place it hasn’t quite been before, and it’s a place that deserves to be explored. My hat is off and my ears are open to this Tzompantli release, and I hope yours will be too.