Extreme metal has an orthodoxy problem. I find it most present in black metal, where adherence to the extremely old and cold ways is something celebrated instead of viewed as redundant and wholly unnecessary (laughably so in a genre as much about elitism and shrugging off of herd mentality as black metal oft claims to be). Yet all stripes of metal have their moments of complacency, of clinging to the path of least resistance, even death metal. It’s adherence to form is not nearly as strictly held as black metal, but death metal by and large, I find, is content to be death metal; unchanged and unbothered by change. Every now and then you get an album like Ulcerate’s Stare Into Death and Be Still that radically shakes up the genre and opens up new possibilities, but those albums are few and far in between, and honestly, it’s mostly fine; I find an OK death metal album a lot more enjoyable to listen to than an OK black metal album. But the older I get, and the longer I involve myself in the world of extreme metal, the more of those special, groundbreaking albums I hear, and the more I long to focus my time and patience listening to the music that truly speaks to me. Black metal has no shortage of genre-defying artists these days, and doom can get suitably weird with it too. So where does that leave death metal you ask? Why, in the capable hands of Dream Unending, and the brand new album Song of Salvation, that’s where.
The dynamic duo of Tomb Mold’s Derrick Vella and Sumerlands’ Justin DeTore have only been making music together under the Dream Unending moniker since last year, yet the impact they have made on the way I view death metal has been second to none. Tide Turns Eternal, the group’s first release, rocketed up my year end list in 2021 despite being a relatively late drop in the year, beating out some very serious names along the way, and for good reason. The idea of combining 90’s death-doom a la Peaceville Records with 70s prog and outsider art weirdness is a stroke of pure genius, and lead to some of my favorite musical moments in recent memory that I still cannot get enough of (good god when that midsection of “The Needful” hits…). It is a formula that produced death metal truly unlike anything I had ever heard before, and for death metal that’s really saying something. When 20 Buck Spin announced there would be a follow-up album almost a year later to the day, I felt both excited and a little skeptical. Where would they go next from here? Would the formula that enchanted me so immediately hold up to further scrutiny? Fool. Absolute fool that I was. Of course it would. It is, in fact, even better than I could have hoped it would be.
While there is much that is recognizable from Tide Turns Eternal here, Song of Salvation is at once weirder and more abstract than its predecessor, ramping up the use of twelve-stringed clean guitar and introducing new touches like the ambient, reverb-soaked trumpet of guest contributor Leila Abdul-Rauf (aka The Siren Call) to the mix. Death-doom is still the musical backbone of this album, and when the riffs bear down on you, you absolutely feel it, but what makes Song of Salvation such an incredible listen is just how much beauty there is in it. Is it strange to call a death metal album ‘beautiful’? Maybe, but there is no other way I could think to describe these songs. From the cinematic breadth of their scope, to the soaring melodies, to the heart and soul put into every note, Song of Salvation is an album that is radiant, ethereal, and utterly beautiful, even when it is so heavy it threatens to split your skull in half.
With two releases now under their belt, both of which feel like classics in the making already, it’s really hard to overstate just how much Dream Unending are doing to advance death metal beyond the confines of its past. There is, quite literally, nothing you will hear this year that sounds like Song of Salvation, and in a world of bands happy to continue to churn out Xeroxed Bolt Thrower and Obituary riffs, I cannot think of anything that would sell you on this album more. This is going to be another prominent addition to my personal year-end list.