I’m going to attempt to be as dispassionate as possible here, but Gatecreeper deserve all the hails and horns that can be collectively mustered. I first encountered this Arizonan quintet two years ago on Halloween for the release of their gut-churning self-titled EP. Stuffed onto the tiny stage of The District in downtown Tucson, Gatecreeper’s energy ripped apart (rest in power, Sunn O))) shirt) the crowd with their punishing and personal stage presence. Since then, I’ve had the chance to see them countless times and garnered a list of injuries to include a black eye, a couple of bloody noses and broken glasses. Worse has happened to others during these sets too. Seeing Gatecreeper live should be listed as a liability when applying for health insurance, they’re that inspiring and the crowd that enthusiastic. In the two years since their EP’s debut, they’ve ridden its tracks into deeper creative territory, releasing a trio of splits along the way that satiated our thirst for a full proper release, in addition to their aggressive touring aesthetic. Now, and declared with much relief, we have their first proper full-length, Sonoran Depravation. At nine tracks, the album is a thorough pummeling, leaving you a bloody pulp by its end, with what remains of your senses telling your broken body that you just witnessed the most punishing death metal album of the year.
2016 deservedly saw Gatecreeper signed to Relapse Records, further cementing the unprecedented, self-sustained momentum they have ridden. Recorded at Homewrecker Studios, another Tucson treasure, the album was sent for further polishing to the legendary Kurt Ballou and his GodCity Studios over the summer. The result is this labor of depraved, sun-blasted love that glows in its raw chainsaw tones dripping with crimson slime. Titled like a murderous love letter to their home state, Sonoran Depravation’s sound brings all the harshness and hellfire that you’d encounter living in the desert. Opening like a waking volcano with “Craving Flesh,” the album announces itself with urgency and importance, a feeling that the track brings in spades in a live setting. Much has been said about Gatecreeper’s affection for the Swedish HM-2 sound, and while I’ll add to that later, not enough has been said of their equal affection for hardcore and crust punk’s energetic breaks, namely Merauder’s seminal Master Killer. Like Obituary on Cause of Death, Gatecreeper know where to place those crowd-moving pieces attributed to metallic hardcore, fitting their tracks together with blunt yet surgical precision. “Sterilized” is a prime example with its sledgehammer-to-face ending, where the album’s most unabashedly heaviest passage thuds menacingly across a blood-slick floor of its own making.
“Stronghold” and “Patriarchal Grip” give neck-snapping nods to Dismember’s debut Like An Ever Flowing Stream, reaping particularly from its towering, harsh melodicism. “Patriarchal Grip,” for that very reason, is the album’s standout track, situated strategically at its midpoint for all its riffing glory to be properly beheld. The vocals, never too animal-like and always hyper responsive to the instrumentation’s ebb and flow, roar and snarl like Grave’s Ola Lindgren on “Rotting As One” and “Stronghold,” where the growls are drawn-and-quartered to sinister effect throughout. “Flamethrower” finds Gatecreeper retaining a more calculated tempo akin to Crowbar’s Odd Fellow’s Rest, painting the track with the appropriate mournful harmonies and a terrifyingly lethargic tempo that sets it as the most unique of the collection. “Grotesque Operations,” in the vein of Incantation’s “Abolishment of Immaculate Serenity,” continues this languid pace, spiraling the LP’s tone downward with its melancholic solos that border on the suicidal, closing Sonoran Depravation with bleak unease.
In terms of death metal, one could describe Gatecreeper as refreshing or reverent, but their are no shortage of adjectives I could apply here to a band that has managed the unwieldy task of creating a unique sound and being flattering to their artistic forebears with songwriting that keeps the recorded medium and live setting simultaneously in mind. This release is a culmination of all I’ve seen this band accomplish, which is much, and for those not paying attention so far, now’s the time to wise up. Sonoran Depravation is a death metal masterwork that will begin carving Gatecreeper a place into the same pantheon from which they draw influence: bear witness and headbang with awe.
While Tucson may be home to the best Gatecreeper sets (see “Desperation” video), be sure to catch them on tour now and at Within These Walls fest. Dates are below.