Signs of the Swarm - Absolvere (Cover Artwork)

Signs of the Swarm

Absolvere (2021)

Unique Leader

I made a pretty blunt point when I reviewed the last Signs of the Swarm record, 2019’s Vital Deprivation. That I thought it was the best deathcore album in a year that saw a surprise resurgence in terms of quality in the genre. Maybe that resurgence was most surprising as the heavy world at large was seemingly coming to the agreement that deathcore was becoming creatively impecunious, if not bereft. But then along came 2019 bringing with it Signs of the Swarm, Whitechapel with what most people felt to be their best album to date, Shadow of Intent with their symphonic take on things, Thy Art Is Murder’s raging party style and more besides. So a few years on, the big question is whether the follow-ups from these bands and their contemporaries can live up to what are now not insignificant expectations.

Spoiler: I really like this record. Whereas I’m not sure there are many big surprises or stylistic shifts in it, it seems there has been something of a hive mind developed in this scene in the last few years. Bands have started to take influences from the progression they’ve seen around them and this has resulted, at least in the case of this record, with a varied and often complex toolkit of styles, sounds and tricks with which to disorient and bludgeon the listener. And without wishing to be reductive of it (there’s plenty of places on the internet to go if you want that), deathcore is kind of designed to do those things. It’s wilfully obnoxious and absurd. It’s a neon, pulsating, swivel-eyed version of its progenitors and relishes being exactly that. Signs of the Swarm, for me, have found an ideal niche where they tick all of the necessary boxes with sub-drops, crazy gutturals, pig squeals, breakdowns, pinch harmonics and electronics. Importantly though, they don’t feel like they’re just ticking them off a list at any point. Also, they never go full Brand of Sacrifice at any point. It stops short of sounding like an 8-year old Japanese kid’s fever dream, basically. I appreciate this is a matter of taste and a lot of people adore that style of deathcore/slam, but to my ears, it loses the sinister element that I like this music to be imbued with. Signs of the Swarm definitely retain that and wield it with confidence and aplomb. Listen to the gothic piano outro to “Hollow Prison” (ft. Alex Erian of Despised Icon) and you’ll know the sort of thing I mean.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s important to avoid the cookie-cutter approach to songwriting that deathcore fell foul of in the MySpace explosion of the early 00’s. The good news is there are still plenty of unexpected turns to keep you interested across Absolvere. Less so stylistically, but more to do with the songwriting. The title track for example, is an unsettling 2-minute instrumental leaning heavily on the rhythm section and synths instead of being something more bombastic and typical. Conversely “Blood Seal” (Feat. Ben Duerr of Shadow of Intent) is the best part of 6 minutes and the last section is a kind of horrorscape of swirling, altered synth sounds and rumbling that leads into the closing track “Death Whistle”, another almost-6 minute song that has one of the most complex mixes that I’ve heard in some time. Get some good headphones and listen to it in with as high quality a recording/stream as you can find and it becomes a genuinely immersive experience.

There feels like there is a craft, a patience and a (dare I say it) intelligence to what Signs of the Swarm do that is simply not synonymous with the genre. All the while you have hugely impressive musicianship, more accomplished songwriting than you find from most of their peers and a genuine sense of identity. Again, this is something that can elude bands in this scene, but I would recognise them anywhere. Not least of all because of Dave Simonich’s vocals, which I love more than anyone has a right to considering the noises he’s making. It’s not easy to carry off the various vocal styles he does whilst sounding completely committed and remaining texturally in sync with the musical backdrop.

Most people already know what they think about this kind of thing. Some adore it almost universally. Some despise it with even more fervour. I’m in neither camp, but I know when it’s being done well. And Signs of the Swarm do it really well.