Toxodeth - Mysteries About Life And Death (1989) - 3.5/5
Although the majority of the more praised old-school death metal albums come from the early 90's, any fan of this particular style of death metal knows that from the mid to late 80's that there was a fair share of solid releases, mostly demos, EP's and so on. The death metal from those times was not surprisingly quite primitive, usually closer to thrash, simpler, and rawer. Some may even disagree with the death metal status of quite a few of these releases, but most often, the tag of "death/thrash" often works. Some bands from this sub-genre lean more towards the "death" side of things (Eternal Dirge, Massacra, Agressor), others the "thrash" one (Thanatos, Sadus, Devastation). Then, we have bands like the incredibly obscure Mexican Toxodeth who were right in the middle. Released in 1989, the same year as monumental and quite influential albums such as "Severed Survival" and "Altars of Madness", "Mysteries About Life And Death" is one of the earliest examples of death metal that still has many characteristics of its "parent" genre thrash metal while entering the more complex and structurally/compositionally adventurous worlds of what was to come in death metal.
As expected of a lot of primitive and early extreme metal, the production here is quite raw. Vocals are reduced to strange "howling whispers", drums are sharp yet suppressed, while the bass is pushed into the back and guitars are surprisingly high-register and clear. It's not something that you'll get used to immediately, and in spite of how poor it sounds on paper, it actually works a great deal towards giving this album its unique atmosphere. The whole thing is still listenable and if anything, the odd production helps to give off a vibe of something going on some voyage into a misty, gloomy forest. This feeling of mystery is further enhanced by their interesting playing style. It's not really "technical", but listening to their oddball approach to death/thrash, it becomes clear that this band was aiming high at things out of their reach, with moments of pseudo-virtuosity struggling to shine through a feeling of amateur-ish-ness. It's hard to tell if some of the playing is sloppy or just on some strange middle ground between complexity and simplicity, but it adds an interesting element to their sound.
The style of the guitar playing comes off as a mixture of the flair and virtuosity of progressive and traditional metal bands of the years past combined with the roughness of early death metal acts. Laced into gritty and raw primitive riffs straddling the line between death and thrash are familiar melodic devices and lead work inherited from progressive metal and NWOBHM. Toxodeth are not afraid of using bursts of nuanced lead guitar playing that at times evokes a feel most of us will be more suited to hearing in say, a neo-classical power metal context. These sudden excurses into the realms of guitar-hero virtuosity more associated with Yngwie Malmsteen than old school death metal usually completely alter the flow of a song, shifting the momentum towards focusing on the powerful, gripping melodies, and while it is definitely one of the most interesting parts of their sound, to some it may sound disjointed. It does manage to work in the context of their general style, fortunately. You will hear a lot of crunching murky palm-muted riffs and tremolo picked passages as is often the norm for death/thrash, but theirs have a stronger sense of melody inherited from classic heavy metal, more than is the norm for a lot of death metal. Toxodeth link these to short bursts of lead-guitar work, forming an effective contrast to the rougher muted strums and thrashy palm-riffs and sharp tremolo picking, with the lead work often being responsible for the flow of a lot of the momentum in a song. The end result strikes a surprisingly effective balance between extreme metal roughness and more conventional melodic-ness. One thing they're not afraid of doing is soloing, and they tend to have more than just one solo-section in a song. Although the solos don't always feel completely professional and tend to have slight hints of the atonality of death and extreme thrash metal, it becomes clear that Toxodeth were also trying to emulate the grace and fluidity guitarists like Jason Becker and Marty Friedman. The solos are quite long and often go through a variety of styles, from tapping sections focusing on sustained longer melodies (oddly similar to tremolo picking in their use of melody in a way) to wilder versions of dual guitar harmony-centric interplay. The end result can feel a bit rough around the edges, but they actually manage to nail it a fair share of times, albeit it sometimes being "just there" and rather roughly, although the roughness tends to add an interesting flair to their approach.
The rest of the band holds up reasonably well, but the guitarist obviously being the center of the action and his skill level being awkwardly higher than the rest of the band. While the bass pretty much just follows what everyone else is doing, the drummer, while he comes off as a bit unsure of his abilities, is able to do a great job of accenting the wild sonic adventures of the guitarist, creating compelling and fitting patterns. He does not use any blast beats and has an eye for putting rolls and fills at just the right moments, although some of his patterns can feel a bit rudimentary and not quite as imaginative and supportive as the guitar work. A solid job on his part though. The vocalist will be VERY hit or miss. His voice does not come as up-front and powerful as usually is expected of death metal, but his strange whisper-howls have few equals or similarities in death metal. The production isn't always too kind to him as he seems pushed back in the mix, but despite how unprofessional his voice sounds, he can do a good job of sustaining it and sounding like some eerie, decrepit, narrating voice calling out from behind of a veil of guitar virtuosity and hazy production. His range might be limited, but his general tone and delivery fit into the sound.
Injecting elements from progressive metal and NWOBHM into a mixture of death and thrash metal, Toxodeth created an album that had a lot of what was great about all of these into a primitive yet unique and forward-thinking take on what death metal could be. Although the album is held back, ironically, by its greatest strengths (the generally bizarre approach) and the uneven performance, its primitive, rough, and unpolished yet compelling grasp of virtuosity and penchant for dynamically changing songs and excellent lead guitar work make it an album worth checking out for those looking for strange, mostly unused pathways into what death metal could have become.