Well, it’s certainly been a while since I’ve reviewed some straight-up metal on this site, hasn’t it? I did not really mean to go that long without covering something gnarly and heavy, so let’s compensate for that wait with an album that is particularly nasty. In this case, I’m talking about Ilsa, a doom metal/crust punk band that’s been on a pretty consistent grind (no pun intended) for the past 10 years, averaging an album or split per year since their formation in 2008. Their sound is some of the grittiest and grimiest that you’re likely to find in underground metal, and they certainly prove as much on their latest outing, Corpse Fortress.
Ilsa’s songwriting often tends to be very drawn out and slowly paced, relying on sparse drum patterns and low-end droning guitar rhythms to creating a feeling of dread and loneliness. It’s appropriate, then, that the album’s opening track is titled “Hikikomori.” The song starts off with a sparse drum rhythm that creates a wide open space for the rest of the band to enter in slowly after, with massive thunderous guitars and Orion’s deep bellowing shrieks. The rumbling chords and disorienting guitar leads create the perfect sense of isolation as the band perfectly captures the sensation of existing as its titular subject (“Spend my life in low lit rooms, nursing sour beers… I’m a hermit in the city, heavy metal hikikomori, soaked in sludge, hair down to my knees”). From here, the album maintains this sense of dread and foreboding loneliness through its massive, cavernous, and solitary production/songwriting.
Tracks like “Cosmos Antinomos” and “Nasty Brutish” pick things up a tad with a more double-time drum feel, but the rhythms and how they coincide with the low-end guitar chugging still build a massive filthy sound that rumbles outward, which also allows for the lead guitar work to shine through with off-kilter harmonies and disorienting solos. The former, especially, features simple lead work that drones and howls outward into the musical void created by the rest of the band, creating a gloriously unnerving vibe. The same goes for “Polly Vaughn,” with its off-kilter guitar melodies filling out the sludgy doomy space made by the drums and guitars as Orion relays a tale of a tragic hunting accident to the listener.
While slow and steady is the general name of the game on Corpse Fortress, there are moments when the album picks up a bit of speed, especially on “Old Maid” with its crusty d-beat drums and the various rhythmic switch-ups in the second half. The thunderous instrumentation combined with its off-kilter structure does well to keep the listener on their toes, especially with the guest vocals from KC Oden, as her fierce piercing howls ride above the main vocals accentuating the dark tale of a nurse being executed for religious heresy.
Yet her mind was strong
For no wrong had she done
She feared not life or death
Her purpose became one:
Reject the teachings of a greedy perverse church
Spreading subordinance and lies of virgin birth
She’d taught the secrets of the forests, seas and skies
The cycles of the moon
And all the earth provides
The album is a heavy and filthy experience from start to finish, but with this kind of album, after a while, much of the songwriting tends to bleed into each other. Perhaps the album could have used more “Old Maid”-style songs with a punkier vibe like on older releases. The feeling is very uniformly sludgy with a similar style of riffing from song to song, and while the brutality never lets up, you feel like you can pick up everything you need to know on a first listen. Thankfully, as previously implied, the lyrics go a long way to make up for some of the musical repetition, as the many haunting tales and motifs from song to song are horrifyingly ritualistic, perhaps most literally on “Long Lost Friend”, a song entirely in Latin that (literally) invokes the presence of the dark lord.
Corpse Fortress is a solid album and a nightmarish experience from beginning to end. The Ilsa formula is intact and as strong as ever, keeping the sludge and doom turned up to max levels and maintaining lyrically haunting tales all throughout. While the songwriting can bleed into itself from song to song, thanks to their continued work with producer/engineer Kevin Bernsten, this album easily stands as the most sonically powerful that Ilsa has ever sounded on record, and comes recommended for fans of absolutely filthy metal music.
Final Verdict: stream it. Corpse Fortress delivers exactly what the name implies: a lethal enough sound to construct an entire building of death and destruction.
[Note: a copy of the album was provided by Relapse Records for the purpose of this review.]