Written by Swatty
Sxuperion – Auscultating Astral Monuments
Black/Death metal from America
Releases June 25th, 2021
Cosmic blackened death metal is always a tricky proposition. That specific kind of genre melding most often consists of an oppressive and at times aggressive sound filled with repeating patterns leading to complete thrall on the part of the listener. Sxuperion, a one-man entity (Matthew) from Mammoth Lakes, CA has been channeling this feeling for the greater part of two decades now albeit sporadically. He has released several albums through Bloody Mountain Records (a label that has also released his work under the Sxap and Valdur monikers among others) over this time with each one being a log of a moment captured during his sojourn across the galaxy.
The name of the act itself is quite intriguing as Superion was the autobot Transformer that was formed when all five aerialbots (a bunch of jets) combined into a giant badass of good (and just so happens to be this writer’s favorite of the autobot combiners). Being that these airborne heroes also share a cosmic origin, the name definitely seems quite apropos. So, does Sxuperion succeed and honor the legacy of the great autobot Superion? Eh, yes and no.
With Auscultating Astral Monuments we are presented with nine tracks totalling a very succinct 33 minutes to be the soundtrack for our forceful expulsion from Earth’s gravity. Right out of the gates, “Astral Silence” sets the tone for the rest of the album with a heavily blurred voice narrating what I assume to be the launch of some infernal hell-rocket. Shortly thereafter a very simple and swaying tremolo melody launches the song proper before settling on an even simpler three chord riff that could easily have been taken from a Hellhammer demo. The percussion also plays a very simple and patient 4/4 beat before settling on a quicker and unwavering 2/4. That simple Hellhammer riff then goes through a couple of interesting permutations while a simple upper string countermelody does its best to provide some otherworldly harmony. At this point you have arrived at the nebula and the gas clouds begin to part, lighting your path in the process as a little chromatic descending riff guides you along while cavernous death growls narrate the sights.
This is the template which the rest of the album follows. Each song here tries to convey a sense of cosmic travel and the dread that accompanies the impossibly cold emptiness of space. Some tracks work better than others – in particular “Ophanim Mechanical Drive” does a fine job of introducing unexpected melody and tonality to the otherwise dreary and minimalist aural palette. There’s also a nice passage starting around the 1:40 mark that does a great job of channeling a frenetic urgency as it leads into the very hypnotic closing section which has a simple two note semitone tremolo riff that really hammers it home. In fact, this song richly demonstrates the economy of sound and simple instrumentation which seems to be at the heart of Sxuperion’s identity.
Inversely “The Mote In God’s Eye” is the most patient of the bunch here, and allows a very clever riff to develop and gel with some simple upper string harmony and paced growls from the void. Eventually the riffing gets more acute with a nice descending triplet that appears on several tracks here. This all leads to a fading single note tremolo that soon waltzes with a ghostly Gregorian chant. Unfortunately at three and a half minutes it’s over way too soon.
And this is where the bad comes in. When it comes to this kind of ultra-minimalist riffing and meter, the end goal is nearly always complete catharsis. Think of the very first now-canceled-Drudkh (I used to ADORE this band) album Forgotten Legends where simple minor chord riffs are allowed to repeat ad nauseum not so unlike Philip Glass. Or maybe in the vein of anything Darkspace has done. I feel like minimalism is fine but is best expressed in a larger context where the repeating melody has a chance to truly become hypnotic. When it is done in brief sub-four minute flashes, a lot of the impact can be lost and here that is a true tragedy because there are marvellous and inventive little ideas afoot.
Another complaint is the production here. There is a very muffled sound to the instruments and vocals which I can appreciate is part of the experience. However I can’t help but feel they would benefit more from a slightly cleaner presence to really accentuate some of the surprising motifs found throughout the album. Additionally most of the instruments seem to be highly compartmentalized. While there are brief moments when they coalesce into something greater, most of the time the synths and samples are left isolated as intros or closers while the main focus seems to be on only the guitars, vocals and drums. I can also appreciate the artistic vision of having those kinds of things separated, but I’d love to see all these disparate elements come together like the Aerialbots forming Superion, pumped and ready to crush Devastator in an epic Cybertronian battle.
In the end, there are enough really good ideas here to warrant a listen and perhaps even a purchase because clearly Matthew is on an indelibly defined path for his artistic vision. Sxuperion has been active since 1998 and after going through his discography there hasn’t been much deviation from his initial path. Still, I believe it is a vision worth investigating, and one which you can decide for yourself if this is the fuel you’ve been looking for to launch you and your spacecraft to Alpha Centauri and beyond while some interstellar flesh-eating bacteria ravages you and your crew.