The first time I ever saw metal quartet Intronaut, the band was playing in the attic-like upstairs room of a Chinatown bar. The sound was terrible, but I dug 'em. Next time I heard Intronaut was in the backroom of a dingy sushi place. The sound was even worse than the first time, but I dug 'em even more. Since then, I've seen Intronaut every time the band has played Los Angeles (which is often -- it's the members' hometown). The sound's never been optimal -- the bass is turned up way too high, you can barely hear the riffs above the trebly hiss of distorted guitar, and forget about trying to make out the lyrics -- but like the supportive mother who sees potential for improvement in her child's every screw-up, I knew that one day, Intronaut was gonna do something right.
With Void, the band's debut full-length, Intronaut has made mama proud. The musicians have jettisoned the atonality, relentless blast-beats and manic guitar solos of standard death metal, opting instead for a sound that's built around rhythmic changeups and complex harmonic schemes but still heavy as all fuck. In other words, Void satisfies on both the "What an unconventional modulation!" level and the "These dudes slay!" level, all the while avoiding nearly every single death-metal cliché.
The rumbling toms and three-note guitar lick that begin opener "A Monolithic Vulgarity" are harbingers of unlimited potential. The song could go anywhere and everywhere from there, and it does. After Intronaut forces that three-note theme into a bludgeoning riff, accompanied by three separate patterns from drummer Danny Walker (ex-Uphill Battle), the song becomes a churning guitar-and-drum dance, besting Pelican at its own instru-metal game then capping off the victory with the magnificent (and magnificently growled) line, "Your refuse/ will fertilize/ your own children." The watery jam at the end of the song could have turned metallic muscle into post-rock flab. Instead, it comes as a well-deserved reprieve, and even bassist Joe Lester's surprising switch from fretless to upright just works.
Guitarists Leon del Muerte (ex-Exhumed) and Sacha Dunable (ex-Anubis Rising) unearth some absolutely scorching riffs, all the more powerful because they're often deployed in the middle of a song (check "Gleamer" and "Teledildonics") only to spin away, never to be heard from again. Or maybe the riff will be woven into the DNA of the song itself, waiting for Intronaut to toy with and ultimately transform it. "Nostalgic Echo" develops and twists its opening theme like a bloody metallic sonata, maintaining an almost classical structure while still surprising at every turn. When the distortion kicks in just after the one-minute mark, it doesn't come across as a standard "loud/soft" grab for attention: That grimy, bottom-heavy guitar sound was lurking beneath the crystalline surface of the song the whole time, waiting to be unleashed.
Is this music completely unprecedented? No. There's a strong Mastodon influence in the way that Intronaut's guitar parts bristle and slide against each song's rhythmic undercurrents, and the spacier parts draw on Isis's ambient passages and the death-metal fusion experiments of Cynic. But to my ears, the interplay amongst these four musicians is more satisfying than that of any of those bands -- Lester plays his fretless bass in fugal counterpoint to the guitars, not merely along with them, and Walker pulls off inventive polyrhythms without crossing the wank barrier like Mastodon's Brann Dailor does.
Most important, this is the first time since Death's swan song, Sounds of Perseverance, that a death-metal album has inspired me intellectually and also hit me emotionally. I was in love with Void before I ever knew the band was recording it, but I never could have imagined that I'd love it this much and want to unlock its secrets so often. This, my friends, is as good as heavy music gets. If Intronaut isn't the future of death metal, I don't wanna live to see the future.
***"Gleamer" MP3: http://www.intronaut.net/tracks/gleamer.mp3