Umbra Vitae, Shadow of Life (Deathwish Inc, 2020)

Umbra Vitae's wicked assembly first took shape during sessions for Rust on the Gates of Heaven, the dynamic second LP from Wear Your Wounds, the band that incidentally shares 3/5 of the band’s DNA.

Alongside vocalist Jacob Bannon is bassist Greg Weeks (The Red Chord, Labor Hex), guitarists Sean Martin (Twitching Tongues, Wear Your Wounds, Hatebreed) and Mike McKenzie (The Red Chord, Wear Your Wounds), and drummer Jon Rice, he of Job for a Cowboy and the Wasteland wandering Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats.

Recently released by the inimitable Deathwish Inc, Umbra Vitae's debut-full length, Shadow of Life, is a taut and fearsome slice of USDM born of artistic lives in service to all things extreme. 

At a fierce and taut 26 minutes, the album is an exercise in both nuanced brevity and brutality. The 10 songs tour through a variety of bilious and vitriolic destinations, eschewing the tricks of longer runtimes. Herein lies one of Umbra Vitae’s greatest strengths, in that the execution comes swift and horrible.

Covering everything from the Tampa stomp of the Golden Era of death metal, furious blast beats that flirt with Benumb and Misery Index-styled grind, and a glorious melange of their “day jobs," they manage nuance in the tightest of spots. No less ambitious than the cinematic, astral plane-seeking Wear Your Wounds; Umbra Vitae (Latin for "The Shadow of") instead goes for the jugular on thrilling form.

As you’d guess, Umbra Vitae is unbothered by bands content glancing back and replicating death metal’s halcyon days. They’re instead a deadly serious and modern proposition throwing down a unique and intimidating gauntlet. Let’s get to it.  

Umbra Vitae

As an intro track, “Decadence Dissolves” sets the table well, discordantly preempting the fury to follow. Storming in is “Ethereal Emptiness”, slashing a deep sonic gash, cutting through the murk of the preceding ambient intro in pummeling fashion. For such an immediate opening gambit, they readily flash their fangs from the jump.

They move deftly and swiftly from exhilarating blast beats, guitar squeals, and venomous vocals to a groove-laden guitar stomp that calls to mind Obituary’s primal beatings. Yet, where the brothers Tardy peddle mid-paced horror, Umbra Vitae play recklessly varied tempos to dizzying effect. 

Elsewhere, standout moments abound, including  the glacial, Asphyx chugging that bookends “Mantra of Madness," an otherwise blindingly fast deathgrind ripper: 

Among myriad highlights sits the moody and disorienting sway of “Fear is a Fossil," it’s power in the various ways to interpret the oldest and most deeply held of human insecurities. Barely eclipsing the minute mark is “Polluted Paradise," a Bannon showcase if there ever was one. He’s rarely sounded as feral as he does here and, after the midpoint relents for a merciful moment, it devolves into utterly tortured guitar squeals and Morbid Angel-worthy histrionics.

In what feels longer than it’s 40-yard dash runtime, the blast beats are at last vanquished, a final single note suffocating all that dares remain. A litany of projects these artists have been involved in have been ferocious, but this song exists in the rarified air of their classics. They manage to capture the harrowing sound of a life extinguished… the final wheeze in the throes of death. Absolutely vile in the best way possible.

“Blood Blossom” is a not so subtle reminder that the hardcore through line is inescapable and strong with this bunch. As expected, Kurt Ballou lends the ear of expertise to the proceedings, allowing space in an otherwise breathless half hour. 

“Intimate Inferno” into “Return to Zero” is an equally exhilarating run. The former’s black metal tremolo runs and impossibly deep bellows feel summoned from the sky or, perhaps more fittingly, conjured from cryptic and mossy depths. The latter is a towering and monolithic epic in miniature, running on intimidating and exhausting call and response vocals for the duration. Each lyrical punch of “return to zero…” feels like a stabbing punctuation to one of their more brutal moments.

The closing title track is, for me, the album’s bespoiled and crown jewel. At four minutes, it vacillates between a slow burn and blackened grind that’d sit well with fans of Full of Hell.

Repeated seemingly ad infinitum is “shadows will one day come for you...” and, when we’re at last gifted a heart wrenching guitar passage that recalls Carcass’s Heartwork, it’s an enthralling way to conjure said shadows. 

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