Perhaps the Bay Area’s best kept secret, San Francisco’s Vastum have been quietly destroying dreams and evoking the stuff of wide awake nightmares since their 2011 crushing debut Carnal Law. With a unique sound to match, Vastum take a bit of a different approach to their Death Metal. Setting out not to just mindlessly terrorize, blaspheme, or merely be “brutal,” the source of Vastum’s motivations appears to be much more demented in scope. Delving deep into the psychosis of the individual and the multitude of cognitive dissonance-fueled anxieties that possess us, Vastum paint visions of the worst abuses, typically sexual in nature, and familial as well, if not in a largely religious way, bringing to the mind the idea that we’re all supposedly “Children of God.”
With that in mind, their new album is entitled Hole Below. That just sounds demented, right? Even if you haven’t been infected yet by their debut or their masterful follow up Patricidal Lust, the title alone of their new record is enough to give you pause – and rightfully so, for the canvas of this record is all but splattered with blood and semen. It seems fitting, then, that the dark aura of this album begins with an atmosphere that is reminiscent of Swans in nature, before Vastum decide to violate you with their patented mid-tempo attack. Rumbling along, “Sodomitic Malevolence” kicks the album off with the kind of mind fuck composition it deserves, as the haunting aura of its introduction continues to intermittently intercede on the action. Something that continues throughout the record, these obscured, echoing spoken vocals a la Michael Gira of Swans hover like the tormented subconscious of someone who has gone completely off the rails.
Next, “Amniosis” hits you like a sledgehammer, with pummeling guitar and bass with succinctly timed, catchy mid-tempo rhythm changes that crush only like Vastum know how, as deep, bellowing vocals preside over this towering affair. But in the end, it’s the hair-raising, throaty scream at the 3:52 mark that gets the most reaction out of me. The depth of its torment cannot be explained, the pain and agony of its source simply unfathomable. The best part, though, is that there isn’t even a second to digest what has just happened to you, as Vastum immediately wring your neck with that pounding rhythm section again as the song finishes in furious fashion, wiping the floor with any weaklings unprepared for its sick, sadistic might.
“In Sickness and Death” picks up nicely with a more tempered ebb and flow to its arrangements as it creeps along, inching its way forward in that subtle way that Vastum are so good at doing that always initiates obligatory head banging. In essence, this is song is quintessential Vastum, but they do ultimately hit you with a dark dive into an abyss with a synth-drenched turn at the 4:17 mark that is eerie as all fuck and simply unforgettable in how twisted and warped it sounds.
Meanwhile, “Intrusions” really hits you with the venom. With vocals that are absolutely scathing, Vastum make you feel the pain of being violated; the helplessness of it, the humiliation, and perhaps most of all, the unspeakable spite that is conjured by it. The pervasive sickness behind such misdeeds that inspires this tangled web of malformed emotions continues in full on the title track and the closing number “Empty Breast.” Through these last couple tracks you are dragged through the mud as twisted riffs give rise to murderous manifestos of a grandiose nature.
Appropriately so, Vastum excel at building towards a climax and when it hits, good luck trying to wrap your mind around it. “Empty Breast,” in particular, ends on a high note. Going back to the riff that started the song, Vastum leave you in utter despair with chords of melancholy that channel the void. For once you’ve reached the end of Hole Below, you realize that you’ve been left again with no answers. Vastum are still the same sadistic, volatile beast they’ve always been and in their eyes there is no reprieve for our shame – our mental enslavement is eternal.