Before this album was even announced, Horrendous could be found at the summit of the mountain containing the best modern death metal bands. Their last three albums were clinics in how to do truly awesome death metal with a progressive slant (think Chuck Schuldiner’s Death) with the arguable apex of them being 2015’s Anareta. What an album. What a band. Waiting five years since 2018's Idol for new work to drop was an exercise in patience and the realization that no band can do it quite like this Philly quartet.
Ontological Mysterium brings with it as much joy as it does worry depending on your outlook. As a fan, you want new music and you want it to be great. To come this far - nearly 15 years in the game - for it to falter now would be disappointing, though not entirely out of the ordinary. It’s uncommon for a band to keep this long of a streak going without even as much as a middling effort somewhere along the way. But Horrendous are an uncommon band and Ontological Mysterium is an uncommon album.
The best thing this band did was take a step back and make their metal curdle in more recent years. A mixture of melody, atmosphere, and progressive tendencies really gets the cauldron stirred up and there’s plenty of examples of that here even with a shorter runtime (this is Horrendous’ first sub-40-minute album). Even better, stylistically, Ontological Mysterium is effectively, though not literally, a sequel to Anareta.
“Preterition Hymn” is a fine example of all of this. Like a more fleshed-out follow-up to “Siderea” or “Ozymandias”, it combines mid-tempo, masterful riffing with an epic feel, and I mean like Homer’s The Iliad type of epic. That comparison is apt too as this track features allusions to Tantalus, a son of Zeus made to suffer after doing some… fucked up shit. This track takes its time opening up like a vivid tulip - one with a raspy voice and unreal sense of scale, the kinds within mythology. The payoff with group vocals and marching rhythms at the end of the song before dropping off into an acoustic outro is one of the most satisfying parts of the album.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. “Chrysopoeia (The Archaeology of Dawn)” is a profoundly strong post-intro track that really shows what Horrendous are capable of while pushing themselves further than ever. It’s important to note that pushing forward or being progressive isn’t linear and doesn’t guarantee avant-garde experimentation for everyone. For Horrendous, drifting out of their comfort zone means subtle, ethereal clean vocals, and a powering heavy metal foundation, both of which are present on this song and serve their overall sound so well.
Or what about the hair-raising, cinematic instrumentation on “Aurora Neoterica”, an interlude track that earns its place in the track list by incorporating a levity and jazzy lilt that Horrendous tend to only flirt with in small part? Goddamn, this song is great, and creates a wonderfully spectral bridge between two other heavy-hitting tracks. Later on, “Exeg(en)esis” mixes things up even more with foreboding riffing and a modulated voice that helps accentuate the album’s subthemes of existence and being (Ontological Mysterium translates to “mystery of being”). It sounds like music H.R. Giger would listen to, or make himself - futuristic, horrifically structured with both known and unknowable parts, and mind-bending.
Ontological Mysterium is and feels built on the bones of things larger than itself, than any of us. It toys with the ideas of growth, new beginnings, and unchaining your power and potential, a relative far cry from past work steeped in more hardline existentialism or nihilism. It’s more hopeful and positive, and while the music retains a edge - more honed and obliterative than ever - it seems to potentially mark a new era for Horrendous themselves as they mask their progressive, pristine writing and overflowing conviction in a Trojan horse of classically-tuned, steely metal worship that will resonate with a lot of fans splayed across extreme metal’s various spectrums. The only flaw I could even levy on this album is it’s not as immediately world-shatteringly good as Anareta was, though time could easily dethrone it.
Bottom line: Ontological Mysterium is a philosophical treat cloistered within some of the most ravenously delectable death metal you could subject yourself to this year, perhaps ever. Every song hits for wildly different reasons, the raw entertainment value is elevated to a new apex, and Horrendous situate themselves even higher on the great, gilded pedestals of extreme metal godhood by doing what they do best: whatever the hell they want. The sky truly is the limit for them, bringing on a different concern with the band’s work - how long can they truly keep this up?