After 2013’s well-received debut effort The Charnel Expanse, Boston-based death metal outfit Zealotry return triumphantly with their sophomore effort The Last Witness. Steeped in the winding, progressive, and experimental side of the genre, The Last Witness is an absolute monster of a record. Equally utilizing the technical finesse of Gorguts and Atheist, the alien atmosphere of Demilich, and the dissonant, off-kilter guitar work of early Immolation, Zealotry have crafted an album that is just as immediately satisfying as it is intricate and, upon subsequent listens, reveals more of itself to listeners and proves to be far more than the sum of its parts.
While the songcraft on Zealotry’s debut was leagues above most of what death metal has to offer, it was hampered by a hollow and murky production that obscured some of the more intricate elements within the songs. The Last Witness, however, is remarkably well-balanced: Neither too polished nor too cavernous, the winding, bizarre guitar work of R. Temin and P. Tougas is like a grotesque call-and-response ritual pinned down by the jazzy, Atheist-esque bass work of Aodán Collins and the constantly shifting but calculated drum work of Alex Zalatan. If The Charnel Expanse demonstrated the band’s ability to stretch themselves in the way of songwriting, The Last Witness does that and more, as the band’s technical abilities is one of the album’s chief highlights, especially since it never crosses the line into self-indulgence as many death metal bands are apt to.
The band’s chemistry is shown at its strongest on “Yliaster,” which, despite its relatively straightforward structure, harbors guitar work laced with odd-timed pinch harmonics and counterpoints to its driving opening riff before launching into a frenetic, whammy-soaked guitar solo that recalls early 90s Allan Holdsworth. It slows down in its second half to introduce a pounding yet unorthodox death/doom riff that swims with dissonance and tension, an idea that is expanded on in the trudging, dread-filled title track that lays its foundation upon eerie clean guitar arpeggios and a section that allows the bass work to take hold before swinging back into one of the grooviest riffs on the entire album. Closing track “Silence” is the album’s tour de force, though, integrating just as much mid-paced bruality as atmosphere with its windswept synths, cello interlude, and acoustic intro right out of the page of mid 90s melodic death metal. The riffs are no less frenzied but heavy on their melodic tendencies, resulting in a wildly textured, unpredictable beast of a song that put the throaty, gravelly roars at the center of the mix, as if providing an anchor for the untamed momentum of the rest of the band.
There’s no shortage of atmospherically bent and warped death metal in today’s scene – the fact that Zealotry and Chthe’ilist share a member is quite evident over the running time of The Last Witness – but what sets apart Zealotry is their unrivaled ability to never step down from crafting songs that are just as artful as they are absolutely ripping. “Progeny Omega,” for example, further explores the band’s progressive tendencies with a proggy, string-soaked midsection and also brings in some black metal influence with bombastic choirs atop the blasting chaos and churning riffs. Zealotry are able to cull motifs and ideas from multiple sources while never sounding quite like anything else. (That said, I’m still sticking by my analogy of Gorguts and Demilich having a jam session with Allan Holdsworth.) 2016 has already been a fantastic year for death metal so far, and The Last Witness will inevitably end up standing close to the front of its ranks. It’s a challenging but very rewarding collection of songs, and its density in craft and composition is what makes it so compelling. You can’t afford to miss this.