If you needed any more evidence that Bloodbath were serious about getting back into the vintage, old school death metal sound that catapulted them into the metal conversation as more than just a “supergroup” take a look at that album title. It’s not enough that Survival of the Sickest, the band’s latest offering uses a sickly blue tint to stand out against the putrid, vomitous yellow theme of the album art, but – just like Molder earlier this year – we have that wonderful Arial font, complete with quotation marks. It’s indicative of the return to a deeper, squishier version of death metal, one that eschews its supergroup status to just get back to making some serious fun death metal.
By now the history of Bloodbath is a given: some of the biggest names in Swedish metal decided to get a side project going where they could express their inner old school death dreams to the world. And so Jonas Renkse and Anders Nyström of Katatonia, Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt and Edge of Sanity/metal producer extraordinaire Dan Swanö grabbed their HM-2s and commenced shredding. A stellar EP and debut album came out, and…really that’s where I petered out. I enjoyed the fun of Nightmares Made Flesh (no one can dispute the joy of a track like “Eaten”) and Peter Tägtgren was fine on vocals. But somewhere a shift was occurring, and the drive for vintage old school was being slowly replaced with perfectly fine but nothing extraordinary death metal. Åkerfeldt coming back to the fold for vocals on Unblessing the Purity (pretty good) and The Fathomless Mastery (serious meh) did little to change my gut feeling that what was special now felt like a contractual obligation, and so I was fine to just carry on listening to my old Entombed and Carnage CDs.
And then Nick Holmes showed up. I’m not here to debate the merits of Holmes over Åkerfeldt, but at least the music started waking me up a little. Grand Morbid Funeral was a tentative start, but as I noted when I reviewed The Arrow of Satan is Drawn in 2018, Holmes unlocked something with his dank, viscous growl. The band was really reaching back to the bands and music that influenced them, and that old school feel was back in spades, now complementing the modern songwriting the band had been experimenting with on the past few albums. Survival of the Sickest feels like a natural extension of that, getting even more twisted and filthy with each track.
You know shit is serious when you kick off an album with something like “Zombie Inferno.” New guitarist Tomas ‘Plytet’ Åkvik from Lik fits in perfectly, his leads sounding like they were ripped right out of Tampa, FL circa 1988. It’s hard not to make comparisons to early Death, particular with their song name, but Bloodbath reach for more than just that band in their bag of tricks. There’s copious amounts of Morbid Angel and Suffocation, not to mention the more overt influences of bands like Carnage, Dismember, and Entombed. Personally they had me with Barney Greenway’s appearance on “Putrefying Corpse” – there’s no mistaking that roar anywhere, and honestly it makes me yearn for some kind of collaboration where we get a spiritual successor to Harmony Corruption.
Folks looking for another “Eaten” might be disappointed, but that’s not to say the riffs aren’t catchy as hell on Survival of the Sickest. Continuing the guest appearance train, you get a 2-fer with Gorguts mastermind Luc Lemay smack in the middle of the album with the nasty “Carved” which hits that sweet spot for the chorus. Similarly “Born Infernal” boasts some of the band’s best riff construction, just layering on idea after idea with another Scream Bloody Gore era Death-inspired song that would do Chuck proud. By the time of the mammoth closer “No God Before Me” Bloodbath have re-stablished themselves as hungry to keep playing in this world, not as dabblers or hobbyists but as a hungry band eager to remind others of the weight and merit of the past.
Look at that cover, folks. Look at that album title font. Bloodbath are back, and they mean business. Survival of the Sickest is pretty much everything I look for when I want death metal that brings me back to my youth, but Bloodbath make sure to not retread, but add to the legacy with riffs, lyrics, and Holmes’s now-perfect throat to give life to some of the nastiest songs to come out this year.