Conjuring the Dead
Nuclear Blast Records/Universal Music Australia
Reviewed By Michael O'Brien
Belphegor’s best release in years
Approaching Conjuring the Dead, the tenth full-length release from long-running Austrian blackened death metal act, Belphegor, for the first time was an experience marked with a sense of duality. This is a band whose material I’ve largely enjoyed practically unreservedly ever since I got my hands on their 2006 album, Pestapokalypse VI, so there was definitely anticipation and excitement, however that excitement was somewhat tempered by the knowledge that for all of the fun I’ve had listening to Belphegor over the years, the band has basically been releasing slight variations of the same album over and over again for at least the past decade.
That a band establishes and continues to work a recognisable sound is hardly a cardinal (nor an original) sin, but operating within a framework whose bounds have been mapped in considerable detail from numerous passes across the terrain does welcome the very real prospect of the warm and familiar becoming the predictable and dull. To that end, with Conjuring the Dead, Belphegor has taken some strides toward annexing some additional ground yet has done so with tentative steps, which comprise of Belphegor embracing their death metal influences a little more tightly than has previously been the norm for them.
While it’s true that death metal has always played an important part in shaping the band’s sound, its greater prevalence on Conjuring the Dead can perhaps be seen as an acknowledgement from Belphegor that there is a need to play with the formula once in a while, even if it is a slight tinkering at the edges. Ultimately, the two most important questions are whether or not it works and whether or not it goes far enough. The answers to those questions are yes and probably not, respectively.
As “Gasmask Terror” kicks the album off, the overwhelming feeling that we’ve been here and done all of this before is hard to escape. It’s far from a bad track but it’s also pretty standard blackened death metal fare of the kind that is practically synonymous with Belphegor by this point. Thankfully things pick up considerably after this point with the one-two of “Conjuring the Dead” and “In Death” featuring some of the most enjoyable material Belphegor has penned in quite a while with the former offering up crawling and sinister blackened death metal while the latter draws its essence from crunchy and melodic thrash. These two tracks embody what it is that draws people back into the Belphegor fold time and time again. Sure, the differences are admittedly slight, but the underlying Belphegor sound is still there in conjunction with the minor tweaks which are definitely a welcome addition.
The remainder of Conjuring the Dead features some really great moments in amongst some good but predictable ones which, to be fair, is largely in step with the Belphegor story and should really come as a surprise to nobody. “Rex Tremendae Majestatis” displays thick atmospheric darkness between the acoustic guitar sections and the melodic lead sections while “Black Winged Torment” is one of the heavier and visceral cuts I’ve heard from Belphegor for a while. In fact, if I’m honest, there really aren’t any bad tracks to be found on Conjuring the Dead at all - just those that reach highs I haven’t felt for a while from Belphegor and those that don’t quite reach that particular watermark but easily come within spitting distance of it.
While I still contend that there is more room to move and expand within their well-established sound, Conjuring the Dead is still the best album Belphegor has put out in years. This release eclipses both 2009’s Walpurgis Rites - Hexenwahn and 2011’s Blood Magick Necromance, not because they’re hugely different from a musical perspective (though that definitely helps) but because Conjuring the Dead is just that much more consistent all ‘round. Perhaps the additional year or so between releases this time was just what Belphegor needed to shift gears a little. Whatever it was though doesn’t really matter - what matters is that 20 years in, Belphegor might just be about to enter into a late-career stride. Excellent.