Anyone who came up in the early 1990s death metal scene and was paying attention knows the place of honor that ASPHYX hold. "The Rack" stands alongside "Left Hand Path", "Cause of Death" and a select few other indisputably classic band- and genre-defining albums. These groups took what was thought to be the limited palette of DM and created unique, identifiable atmosphere and individual character out of sickening tones, driving rhythms, impassive minimalism and the very blood-soaked tissue of a few swollen, sacrificed larynxes. ASPHYX, in particular, did so much with so little, creating a dank, claustrophobic epic of doom/death metal for, literally, a few hundred bucks' worth of studio hours!
It's a different time now, of course. There's a whole HAIL OF BULLETS/PENTACLE axis of overlapping band members all cranking out hoarse, organic war metal with that groaning guitar sound and the brutal, suffocating mud lurch ASPHYX concocted back then. But there may be some kind of primitive dark magic involved in just writing or rehearsing under that weird, goofy triangular logo with the skull resting at the bottom like the 1-ball in a billiards rack. You put Martin van Drunen on vocals, yowling his guts out about mustard gas and foxholes, and old-school drummer Bob Bagchus chugging along behind the kit, and the proceedings are gonna have at least a strong whiff of mouldering 1989 basement grime. And while longtime axeman Eric Daniels has been MIA for some time, Wannes Gubbels has definitely proven his mettle and is more than capable of delivering the required solid leaden riffs for an ASPHYX classic.
Opener "Scorbutics" ("those who have scurvy," apparently — who knew?) delivers soul-crushing doom parts, complete with that unique, sobbing, plaintive soloing that sends old-school chills up the spine. But it also fires out of the starting gate with a thrashing beat, reminding us that ASPHYX was never all about the funereal gloom. Indeed, their shifts between reckless, high-gear gallop and teeth-grinding sludge make their songs, which sometimes lurch haphazardly between tempos on a whim, come across as dynamic and momentous. Even when some elements of a cut, like "Bloodswamp", are fairly typical and pedestrian, there's always at least one weighty riff — or at least a satisfying transition — to redeem the tune.
"The Rack" didn't sound recorded so much as unearthed, pulled from a fetid swamp and pointedly not washed off before being put on display. The closest we get to that primeval murk here is the self-consciously old-school, deliberately slow "Asphyx II (They Died As They Marched)" — it's more pristine, polished and obsidian than its classic prequel, but again, it's a different time. ASPHYX, while by no means a technical band, has developed some chops in the last twenty years, and it would be a mistake to try too hard to return to that untutored, clattering, accidentally-awesome vibe of yore. "Death... The Brutal Way" takes the feeling from that era and delivers it with modern-day execution — louder, heavier, more calculating, but more massive and sonically crushing.
It would be a mistake to consider this "retro" or praise/damn ASPHYX for going back to their roots, because they're obviously not concerned with kitsch, or cashing in on what was a pretty low-caliber cult status to begin with. In fact, the band seems to have toiled on, in each of its incarnations, without so much as a glance at the outside world. The title of this record, ham-fistedly simple as it is, sums up the band's sound, not to mention their entire mission. That kind of single-mindedness can be redundant and boring in the hands of lesser artisans, but when ASPHYX is alchemizing their sound, "Death... The Brutal Way" sounds like the only thing that matters.