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Album Review: Umbra Vitae - 'Shadow of Life'

6 May 2020 | 1:41 pm | Staff Writer
Originally Appeared In

Mind-melting metal maelstrom.

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Here’s the thing about supergroups: sometimes, the sum is not necessarily guaranteed to be greater than its parts. Some combinations of disparate band members are bonafide hits, while others end up a haphazard ‘swing n’ miss’: The Damned Things and Prophets of Rage; Run The Jewels and Giraffe Tongue Orchestra; Boygenius and Fake Names. And somewhere on this spectrum between transcendent and trite, you’ll find the newest entry on the hardcore/metal supergroup assembly line: Umbra Vitae.

This new amalgam of mainstay American heavy scene alums comes off as a mystic third-order supergroup — a ‘meta-meta-supergroup' if you will. Let’s start with Converge, a band who, in their position as decades-long genre luminaries, are functionally a supergroup all to their own. Each member is a gifted musician, consummate songwriter, and responsible for moonlighting in a handful of outside passion projects of relative value. Peeling off vocalist and indomitable frontman Jacob Bannon, a curious listener also finds his work in Wear Your Wounds, a once solo project that quickly morphed into an experimental rock collective dealing in lavish long-form compositions and rotating membership pulled from esteemed acts such as Cave In, Chelsea Wolfe, Planes Mistaken For Stars, Trap Them and Sleigh Bells (just to name a few). This WYW connection brings us to guitarists Mike McKenzie (The Red Chord, Stomach Earth) and Sean Martin (Twitching Tongues, ex-Hatebreed) and, finally, Umbra Vitae itself.

As Bannon tells it in the group’s Spotify bio: “Umbra Vitae was conceived during Wear Your Wounds rehearsals. With all members having roots in heavy music, the band would often warm up playing aggressive riffs.” With this simple mission statement in mind, the final line-up rounds out with the addition of Greg Weeks (The Red Chord, Labor Hex) and Jon Rice (Uncle Acid, Job For a Cowboy) for the rhythm section. And thus, that 'meta-meta-supergroup' is born. On their debut LP, ‘Shadow of Life’ — an English translation of the band’s name, drawn from a 1912 poem by German Expressionist Georg Heym) — Umbra Vitae set out to make good use of those aforementioned heavy music roots. But how deep do they go, and does this tree bear bitter fruit?

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Much like ‘metallic hardcore’ signifies a tonally heavier, metal-flavoured version of hardcore that deviates from straight-forward snotty punk orientation, one would think that ‘deathcore’ offers a similar transposition of genre properties. However, listening to any of those ‘Heaviest Deathcore Breakdowns’ compilation videos that litter the digital wasteland of YouTube like mindlessly scattered loot in Fallout is more than enough to dash that notion. Strictly speaking though, what Umbra Vitae offers up on ‘Shadow of Life’ roughly approximates this idealized vision: the desired fusion of death metal’s grime and ferocity with hardcore’s passion and rhythmic accessibility.

Singles ‘Mantra of Madness’ and ‘Return to Zero’ make this intentional splicing crystal clear. The former is an uncaged monster, all seething with rage and discontent, propelled along by Rice’s blast-beat detonations, McKenzie and Martin’s pugilistic riffage, and Bannon’s signature animalistic shriek. The latter takes that established level of aggression and goes full-blown rabid, with Weeks’ skittering bass notes, labyrinthian leads, and vocals that appear to mirror the infernal racket of hell-spawn themselves. Other short cuts like ‘Atheist Aesthetic’ and ‘Polluted Paradise’ keep things blisteringly fast and suitably furious, serving bite-sized portions of carnage and sonic contrast. There’s also a neat use of alliteration in the song titles, which (much to my own literary, scholarly delight) serves to accent thematic duality in both delivery and design. Not to mention the album’s stark monochrome cover, which evokes the imagery of Dutch artist M. C. Escher’s famous “Drawing Hands” lithograph.

However, it’s on the longer tracks where Umbra Vitae finally put those roots to work. ‘Ethereal Emptiness’ mixes melo-death passages with bulldozing rhythmic syncopation to great effect. ‘Intimate Inferno’ finds McKenzie and Martin swinging between peak technical savagery and doom-laden detours, while also providing Bannon with a meaty chorus of backing vocals for added dynamics. Meanwhile, the stomping call-and-response sections of “Do not resuscitate!” in ‘Blood Blossom’ is a definite album highlight, acting as a spiritual successor to the brawling intro from ‘Fear is a Fossil’. Only on the title track and album closer do things take a tangential turn, with the band’s death metal energy slowly draining away into a tremendous oneiric abyss, pitched against haunting melodies and blood-curdling screams.

Jacob Bannon has described Umbra Vitae as a “darkly confrontational” project, manifesting his desire to use “this art and music as the vehicle for a healthy purge of emotion.” And sure, ‘Shadow of Life’ has plenty of emotion, fleeting excitement, and vitriol to go around. Ultimately, however, this release does feel slightly caged in by treading such a narrow path and doesn’t appear to need (or want) for any kind of divergence, both wholly intentional and entirely justified. After all, that’s why it’s a ‘meta-meta-supergroup’ because they’ve got other groups for that — and thankfully, so do we.

  1. Decadence Dissolves
  2. Ethereal Emptiness
  3. Atheist Aesthetic
  4. Mantra of Madness
  5. Fear is a Fossil
  6. Polluted Paradise
  7. Intimate Inferno
  8. Return to Zero
  9. Blood Blossom
  10. Shadow of Life

‘Shadow of Life’ is out now via Deathwish Inc. You can find both physical and digital copies here.