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Umbra Vitae - Shadow of Life (Album Review)

Wednesday, 29 April 2020 Written by Matt Mills

Supergroups. For every Audioslave, there’s a Brides of Destruction. For every Velvet Revolver, there’s a Rock Star Supernova. For every the Damned Things, there’s…almost any other Scott Ian side project.

The point is, despite the enormity of the talent they have on paper, all-star collaborations are rarely a guarantee of quality. Luckily, Umbra Vitae have an ace up their sleeve, elevating them above the likes of Damnocracy and SuperHeavy: Jacob Bannon.

Bannon has served as the frontman of hardcore heroes Converge for 30 years, and outside of his day job he doubles as a beloved renaissance man.

He’s started an experimental group called Wear Your Wounds, written books, designed album art and founded his own record label. All of this successful horizon-pushing makes the singer’s brand new foray into death metal feel rather promising.

Joining Bannon in Umbra Vitae’s morbid crusade are his Wear Your Wounds bandmates, guitarists Sean Martin (ex-Hatebreed) and Mike McKenzie, alongside bassist Greg Weeks and ex-Job for a Cowboy drummer Jon Rice. This five-way union has resulted in the brilliantly erratic ‘Shadow of Life’.

Produced by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, Umbra Vitae’s debut seethes with punk-tinged nastiness. Each of its 10 tracks boast the concise, to-the-point aggravation of hardcore. Not one of them extends beyond the four minute mark, the intensity never dares to drop, and Ballou’s engineering is as gritty and hard-edged as they come. 

Yet, that skeleton is always built upon with the irrefutable musicianship and mangled diversity of heavy metal. Opening cut Ethereal Emptiness is lightning-fast grindcore that’s embellished by its incessant blast beats. The following Atheist Aesthetic is more groove-oriented but no less malevolent, marching forth with stomps that land powerfully. On Fear is a Fossil, Bannon belts out a low, guttural roar that is the polar opposite of the tortured, high-pitched yelling of the manic Return to Zero.

Equally brutal yet fascinating are Martin and McKenzie’s riffs, which bubble and evolve as ‘Shadow of Life’ unfolds. What start as slyly melodic, Deicide-like licks ultimately finish with the overt, sweltering proficiency of ‘Heartwork’-era Carcass. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the conclusion to the standout title track, where engrossing, harmonic lead guitar work provides a counterpoint to predacious screams.

Umbra Vitae make hardcore-inclined death metal of such hunger and ferocity that it belies the age of the men behind it. Rather than being comparable to bands like Converge or Job for a Cowboy, the quintet’s first full-length has more in common with the volatile drive of Venom Prison and Cult Leader. While most supergroups strive to retread their genre’s past glories, Umbra Vitae appear capable of keeping up with the current generation of sonic extremists.

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