The death metal collective known as John Frum are described in their promo as “the patron saints of altered states” and based on the juggernaut that is debut A Stirring of the Noos (and oh how my auto-correct loves that title) I’m inclined to agree. This is progressive death metal that doesn’t sacrifice mood for technical wankery, instead using the prowess of its band members to spin a dark psychedelic web of brutality that pulls the listener into its layers rather than keep them at arm’s length with clinical detachment.
The term “supergroup” more often than not leaves a sour taste in the mouth, the whole almost never equalling the sum of its parts. Comprised of current and former members of The Faceless, Dillinger Escape Plan, John Zorn, and Intensus among others, the music of John Frum feels like an organic merging of ideas. Part of this can be attributed to the six year long gestation period for A Stirring in the Noos: the songs have the feel of being worked on by a single unit rather than pieced together via file sharing after a contract agreement. The sense of cohesiveness and intent in John Frum stands out in a crowded metal community where death metal feels a little lost, bands opting more and more for that crusty lo-fi roar that seems to be popular with the online ‘zines, or the never popular super technical pig grunt “wheedle-dee-do” that is a hallmark of Unique Leader Records’ roster.
(Disclaimer: I love Unique Leader Records. The preceding was a joke. Kind of)
“Presage of Emptiness” is aptly named: it kicks off A Stirring in the Noos with everything you can expect from the band and the album. Massive riffs and grooves clash in ever-changing tempos, the drumming is furious and coming from all directions, and the vocals from Derek Rydquist (ex The Faceless) move from bass-heavy roars to higher-pitched screams effortlessly. There’s never a moment, though, where things feels like they’re going to fall apart. “Pining Light” is even better, with the music moving in fits and bursts, guitar leads rising out of the mists as the song takes an almost groove like stance before spazzing back out into the maelstrom of noise. Elsewhere the odd time and syncopation in “Assumption of Form” and the mania evoked in closer “Wasting Subtle Body” continue the frenzied spirit laid out at the opening of the album.
If there’s a centerpiece to the record it’s “Memory Palace,” which opens with sparse drums accenting the bass which moves around a clean arpeggiated passage before falling into a massive dirge. At over nine minutes it’s the longest track on the album, but as is indicative of all the songs on A Stirring in the Noos your mind never wanders, the doom riff pulling you in like a hellish tractor beam. When things break apart at around the 6:30 mark it’s completely intentional, the chaos as things reach their breaking point is a lesson in how to effectively traverse a musical arc.
Coming into 2017 I was worried that death metal was going to start a slow slide into being inconsequential as more and more bands aped the same old/new trends. John Frum and A Stirring in the Noos goes a long way to dispelling that worry while revealing to the masses the power a “supergroup” is capable of unleashing. This is punishing, bludgeoning death metal of the highest order, weaving its angular differences into a seminal album for 2017.
Just don’t ask me which one of them is John. I have no idea.