The words “Christian” and “death metal” have never really worked in the same sentence for me. I’m not saying death metal as a genre is one that Christians shouldn’t be playing — not by any means. What I am saying is that it’s not often that a Christian death metal band pulls it off.
As a long-time listener of all things death metal, the Christian bands always sounded sub-par. Whether it be abysmal production (let’s face it, not many death metal bands have a good budget), tired songwriting, or trying to make faith-based lyrics sound brutal or grotesque — Christian death metal almost always sounds forced. On Incarnate, Pantokrator changes that paradigm.
Hailing from Luvenhult, Sweden, Pantokrator bring a slightly-more progressive approach to the melodic death metal sound of Sweden’s greats such as In Flames, Soilwork, and Dark Tranquility. It’s heavy and driving form of metal, focused more on good songwriting than technical prowess or instrument gymnastics. When the music is technical or “progressive” (their word, not mine) it’s still accessible, never confusing the listener with strange scales or unattainable time-signatures. And when it’s more straightforward and simple, it feels like sword-waving battlefield music, not unlike Sweden’s Amon Amarth. Songs like “Cast Down” and “Amidst the Wolves” even have a tinge of the more accessible (read: listenable) black metal of bands like Immortal or Unleashed.
The musicianship is fantastic. Mattias Johansson and Jonathan Jansson’s guitar playing (along with Jonas Wallinder’s solid bass playing) is tight and interesting, and drummer Rickard Gustafsson could run right alongside death metal’s greatest drummers. Vocally, Karl Walfridsson could benefit from a little more range, as his mid-tempo growl can grow somewhat tiresome; I’d love to hear him experiment with some extreme highs or lows. A couple songs toward the end of the album feature clean singing, and if there was one thing I could eliminate from Incarnate, it’d be that. The brutal and aggressive nature of the album feels derailed for the sake of being more grandiose; the clean vocals just don’t seem fitting or needed. The lyrics are nothing new: apocalyptic imagery, good and evil battling — you know the drill — but they fit the music and they don’t feel like forced brutality or overly preachy evangelism.
As you would expect from a Swedish metal band — the production is rock-solid. I don’t know what it is about metal producers and engineers in Sweden, but they’ve just always known how to nail the sound. (Seriously, listen to At The Gates’ Slaughter of the Soul, it came out nearly 20 years ago and sounds better than most metal records do now.) The drums sound natural, yet machine-like, and the guitar and bass sound is huge.
The one way that Pantokrator stand out beyond many Christian death metal bands is that they avoid succumbing to breakdowns or the deathcore sound, which is rare. Their moshier parts are either death metal slams (the middle section of “Sammath Naur”) or staccato, machine-gun chugging (“Icarus Burning” and the killer riff in the middle of “Kenvandring”) — and they never feel like they are there just to get people to mosh in a live setting, they feel deliberate and crafted into their respective songs.
Pantokrator have delivered a solid, heavy, and interesting melodic death metal record that solidifies them as true contemporaries with their Scandinavian counterparts, and not just another Christian “Diet Death Metal” band. Although Incarnate isn’t without it’s flaws, those looking for a head-banging metal record will not be disappointed. In fact, they’ll actually be impressed.