Tampa death metal quintet DARK SERMON, formerly known as IN REFERENCE TO A SINKING SHIP, has modified its lineup following the band's 2013 debut LP, "In Tongues". In on bass is Paul Stellmach and on drums, Jordan Jensen as DARK SERMON for their latest slab of death dirge, "The Oracle".
Though there's a bit of grind to "The Oracle", the dominant vibe is slow, and painfully thus. DARK SERMON gets so lost in themselves at times on this album, they risk losing the listener's attention. Fortunately, there's a lot of savvy playing and appended instrumentation to give "The Oracle" a fearsome kick behind its reeling and sometimes tedious dynamics.
As a black-death-doom metal hybrid, DARK SERMON launches the album with a goodie, "Ode to the Black Widow". The track rages with searing black metal overtures set to Jordan Jensen's flailing grind and settles into a massive march rhythm. Austin Good and Neal Minor shred nicely as Johnny Crowder bellows over the whole thing. The track drops back to a crawl to finish, establishing how DARK SERMON intends to operate on this album. The same methodology applies on "In Each Hand, A Talisman of Sacred Stone", which roars and minces with terrific bass lines from Paul Stellmach to match some well-spun back-end keys. The gory slowdown isn't so much the problem with "In Each Hand, A Talisman of Sacred Stone", it's the band's monotonous squat inside an aural pothole filled by Stellmach's nasty chords and a squelchy outro, which offers no payoff.
Instead, it heaves itself into the slow and hopeless "Children of Gaia", which at least rises in brief crescendos and pours on dense guitar layers amidst the song's despondent trudge. To the plus, there's a nifty melody and planted brass blats lurking behind the depressing "Children of Gaia", but stand warned that it's a mean feat to hang through it.
Picking up the pace on the noisome "The Myth of Sanity", Jordan Jensen shows off his chops with spools and rolls as the mix of Johnny Crowder's barfing nearly smothers the rest of the band. However, once the song kicks into speed mode, everything gels great, though varying tempos jerk the listener around through moody shifts between doom and thrash with a heavier lean on the former. If the performances weren't solid, then frankly, this would be boring as all-hell. Unfortunately, boring applies to the opening measures of "Rat King", which takes too long establishing itself with depraved screaming, rat-a-tat bass and drum plucks before the song moves forward—and in not much of a hurry, at that. Positively the creepy death tolls and escalating guitar rakes give "Rat King" a suitable menace.
"Starve" works DARK SERMON's best talents with its mid-tempo throb, bolstered by a terrific double hammer backbeat, springy bass coils and showery guitars. Once more alternating between sluggish and blasting tempos, the ultimate destination leads to a vast emptiness with Paul Stellmach plunking nearly by himself amidst supplemental debris until the band rejoins him and pours on the heat. Johnny Crowder's woofing of "Starve! Starve!" gets outright unsettling.
While DARK SERMON is guilty of overindulgence and the supposition that listeners will hold on through their sluggish bouts, there's an undeniable catch at times to "The Oracle", such as the tapestry of guitars giving "Both in Equal Parts" a sense of grace. However, the song lingers awkwardly, reminding listeners this slow, lamenting motif is DARK SERMON's crutch as much as their weapon.