UPON STONE – Dead Mother Moon

San Fernando’s Upon Stone broke onto the metal scene in 2021 with a well crafted EP, ‘Sky, Sword and Specter’. Its four tracks blended old school death metal with a pinch of hardcore, and when slowing down, the best material wasn’t shy in sharing a few (very welcome) trad metal traits. Assuming you could make it past a rather abrasive vocal, the music pulled from various sources to create an extreme metal release that actually felt really well balanced.

The balance isn’t quite as obvious on their 2024 full length ‘Dead Mother Moon’. The album’s extended playing time, naturally, allows for a little more aggression, and that actually makes this offering more challenging. For the more patient listener who is able to peel away the dense layers of sound, its best songs will still convey a lot of the musical traits that made the EP enjoyable, but this time out, the band have definitely cranked the heaviness a little further. ‘Dead Mother Moon’ offers very little respite. That, of course, could mean that some people will love it more, but…it’s definitely a recording that’s geared further towards the more committed extreme metal buff.

The album’s instant standout track ‘Dusk Sang Fairest’ eschews the typical death metal style for a very heavy mid tempo arrangement where crushing guitar riffs weave back and forth, almost as if sharing a folk metal melody against a doomy groove. The lighter tones of the lead guitar occasionally sing out as if inspired by a mid 80s Iron Maiden arrangement – accentuated further by a great twin lead sound – but, elsewhere, the deep, oppressive tones owe more to extreme pioneers Death and Entombed. Which ever way you approach it, though, this is a number loaded with great riffs, and a heavy melody so great, that even an aggressive, throaty vocal can’t kill it. After a couple of minutes to set this heavy workout in place, the riffs subside, and a complex acoustic riff recalls the earlier ‘A Paean’ in presenting something that plays like a blend of a mellow intro from an old thrash metal classic crossed with Mike Oldfield, before an intensive blast of black metal closes everything in the most unsubtle way. There’s a lot packed into these three minutes, but the track plays like the ultimate Upon Stone primer; a perfect entry point for the unfamiliar.

The also excellent ‘My Destiny: A Weapon’ opens with a massive, jagged hardcore breakdown that fuses the melodic death metal elements of early Soilwork with the crunch of early Machine Head. In taking this tough stance, the rhythms pound with a real intent, without resorting to the usual death metal pneumatics. This, in turn, allows for a few more interesting musical flourishes to fill the track. The middle section, in particular, shares some genuinely great metal when the band first tackles a speed oriented grind, before dropping in a fierce bass rattle and a tough riff allowing for at lead guitar break that, once again, has more than a hint of trad metal at its root. For the bulk of the performance, naturally, the death metal tropes take over, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer ferocity of the drumming and the pure shred of the chosen guitar tones, even though a very abrasive vocal does its very best to challenge the listener.

Beyond that, the bulk of the material doesn’t always offer anything quite as immediate – save for a great track with a legendary guest – but in time, the material works well enough on its own merits, and if you’re approaching the tracks for riffs alone, the album certainly won’t sell you short. ‘Onyx Through The Heart’ begins with a relentless pneumatic assault, dropping influence from pioneers Suffocation into an arrangement that feels a little more Scandinavian, and when this is overlaid by an intense vocal, it leads to a fierce metallic attack that will likely be for genre fans only. It’s really only when slowing to allow the guitars to do something more interesting in an 80s style – with hints of an Exodus-like breakdown, and latterly a superb atonal lead break – that the track comes into its own. These deviations show how brilliantly Upon Stone approach classic metal melodies. They should, perhaps, do so a little more often.

The massive folk interlude on the EP’s ‘A Paean’ may have been short, but its important role in giving the listener time to reflect before the next massive onslaught of riffs cannot be understated. The same can be said for this album’s ‘Nocturnalism’, which reworks a similar trick by applying acoustic guitar work to old gothic/folk melodies, and this tune’s finger picked style isn’t just subtle – it’s rather lovely. Maybe that’s because it’s so different from the bulk of Upon Stone’s work, but its reflective elements show how the band’s thoughtful approach to an arrangement can really shine when not being smothered by a wall of sound. It doesn’t last, of course, and ‘To Seek and Follow The Call of Lions’ reinstates the fierce edges, except in this case, there’s more of a spacious feel within the riffs. The vocals and drumming retain the melodic death approach from before, but the guitar tones and jagged feel draw more influence from classic thrash. The interplay between guitarists Gage Goss and Ronny Marks is great; the musicians have clearly worked to create a really tight unity, and even when speeding up to deliver a shred fest of a solo worthy of old Racer X, the track keeps a foot in the more melodic, very much to its credit. Briefly teasing with more of a groove/thrash metal blend, it’s great to hear Xavier’s bass punching through a little more, before the band resort to a final blast of unrelenting speed and pure heaviness.

Opening with a rumble of drums and another brief foray into classic thrash, ‘The Lantern’ shares a very old soul before taking a detour into quiet gothic territory for a few bars where a bass sound calls back to Cliff Burton’s best work. Any drop into more melodic climes is a ruse, however; the number then sprints gleefully through several minutes worth of melodic death metal, where the tight riffs of Gage and Ronny emulate In Flames circa ‘Clayman’ and frontman Xavier Wahlberg offers a throat caning vocal that seems more concerned with an abrasive mood than conveying a clear lyrical message. It’s brilliantly played – especially the solos – but after the Scandinavian bands that clearly gave a strong influence, and the more melodic elements of Upon Stone’s previous works, it feels a little generic. Perhaps its place on the album immediately after the superior ‘Lions’ doesn’t help, but this feels like a track that should be just a little better than it turned out.

Elsewhere, the title cut brings more pneumatics between a riff that mixes melodic death metal traits with a pinch of metalcore, often sounding like a juggernaut of ’00s metal augmented by a roaring gang vocal and a twin lead that would make Trivium proud, and Paradise Failed (featuring a guest vocal from Shadows Fall man Brian Fair) which flaunts a pleasingly aggressive dual vocal atop a metalcore/melodeath blend, allowing drummer Wyatt Bentley to stretch out and explore a few more groove-led rhythms. The latter’s mix of extreme metal styles topped with a brilliant metalcore breakdown shows how much influence bands like Shadows Fall had upon legends like Killswitch, and latterly some of the melodic death acts. In terms of bringing together most of Upon Stone’s best musical styles and adding a couple more accessible guitar parts, it does a perfect job, and becomes another album highlight.

At just nine tracks and thirty one minutes, ‘Dead Mother Moon’ leaves little room for filler. Upon Stone attack from pretty much the first note to the last – resting only briefly for ‘Dusk Sang Fairest’s lilting coda, and the gorgeous ‘Nocturnalism’ – and their ability to bring riff after abrasive riff can make this album feel like a slightly wearing listen in places, despite its brevity. That said, there’s little doubt that Upon Stone are often very good at what they do; this album just needs to be approached with either a more cautious or patient ear. Even with a couple of relatively generic cuts evident, for fans of the style, time spent getting to grips with the slightly challenging material certainly won’t be time wasted.

January 2024