The blood's barely had time to dry since pioneering death metal quartet Autopsy celebrated their 25th anniversary, marking the occasion last summer with the compilation album All Tomorrow's Funerals and the epic concert DVD Born Undead. It's clear the horror-loving legends have come back refreshed, because their sixth full-length studio release The Headless Ritual is even darker and more sinister than Macabre Eternal, the band's critically-acclaimed 2011 album which marked their celebrated reunion after a sixteen-year hiatus. Seems they're dead-set on making up for that lost time, as they've been turning out some of their best work since they reunited in 2008.
The extreme horror elements that the band has passionately embraced since their origins in the late '80s are still coming through as raw and unfiltered as ever – maybe even more so, as evidenced by the splatterific cover art from legendary Joe Petagno (whose credits include promo art for Motörhead, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd), and amazing zombified portraits of band members Chris Reifert, Eric Cutler, Danny Coralles, and Joe Trevisano by UK artist Gary Ronaldson (as shown in rhe various monochrome panels througout this review).
One thing's for certain, the band has not backed away from their relentlessly grimy, almost unbearably raw approach, which they hammer home via whiplash change-ups on the opening cut "Slaughter at Beast House," a surprisingly technical piece which snaps effortlessly between buzzsaw thrash riffage and sludgy, grinding doom tempos, with Reifert's already demonic vocals sporting that deeper, swampier edge they've acquired in their latter-day work (he really sounds like a rampaging, bone-chomping ogre these days), and the rhythmic underpinnings are some of their deepest and darkest, particularly on cuts like "Flesh Turns to Dust." The more thrash-centric "Arch Cadaver" (which you can hear at the end of this article) may be less typical of their older style, but still effectively demonstrates the effective balance of old-school doom and modern aggression they've developed since Macabre Eternal. It's probably fitting that it's the album's first single, which you can listen to below.
Those same schizoid dynamics, with even more emphasis on technicality and diverse playing styles, can be heard in the tracks "Mangled Far Below” and "When Hammer Meets Bone," but the formula is injected with more intense horror elements in the superb "She is a Funeral," which augments the band's crusty no-frills approach with experimental effects and some truly bizarre, maniacal vocal passages, including a kind of black-mass incantation. After that track, I was craving even more dips into the bloody well of Autopsy's favored themes of gore, violence and horrific death, and I was rewarded with the eerie "Coffin Crawlers," a nightmarish soundscape of mood and mayhem which showcases a truly blood-curdling vocal delivery from Reifert – a card he plays again to equally menacing effect in the thrashy "Running from the Goathead." For further atmosphere, the short cut "Thorns and Ashes" serves as a midpoint interlude, while the album is rounded out with the urgent repeating pattern of the instrumental title track.
If you were impressed with Autopsy's post-reunion incarnation, as demonstrated on Macabre Eternal, chances are good you'll be equally impressed with The Headless Ritual, which offers up the same balance of crusty thrash and horror-fueled doom. In fact, the slightly darker-toned and less predictable rhythms, combined with more grotesque vocals from Reifert, bring the sonic terror home with even more ferocity here... and that amazing zombie artwork is just the glistening blood icing on this oozing, putrescent confection of horrors.