Death metal, the brutal way: it’s an ethos that has served Dutch veterans Asphyx extremely well over the last 29 years, as their dedication to the underground metal cause and subtly subversive blending of deathly aggression and doomed-out despair have steadily earned them legendary status. Since 2009’s quasi-comeback record, the fittingly titled Death…The Brutal Way, the band have regained the momentum generated by the release of seminal debut The Rack in 1991, but nothing ever quite goes to plan in the chaotic world of extreme music. Much to the surprise and shock of talismanic frontman Martin van Drunen, founder member and drummer Bob Bagchus quit Asphyx in 2014, leaving the band with no original members and the very real prospect of a terminal cessation of activities.
“At first we thought there was no moving forward,” the reliably friendly and ebullient vocalist recalls. “Asphyx was finished. That’s what we really thought. We thought, ‘OK, this is the end…’ but then Bob said, ‘No! I want you guys to continue. Deathhammer [Asphyx’s 2012 album] was a really great record and I don’t want to be the guy that pulls the plug!’ He said that if we could find a decent drummer that he could approve of, then we should do it.”
In most instances, replacing drummers in metal bands is a relatively straightforward process, not least because skill levels are so high these days that most extreme metal stick-wielders are effectively interchangeable. But Asphyx have never been anything less than utterly distinctive and replacing Bob Bagchus presented the Dutchmen with a real challenge: somehow, they needed to find a drummer who truly understood the uniquely harrowing vibe that the band have long made their own.
“Luckily, Alwin [Zuur, Asphyx bassist] came up with the idea of Husky [Stefan Huskens],” Martin explains. “He’s been a fan of the band for a long time. His other band, Desaster, were taking it a little bit easy, so he could combine both bands – we didn’t want to rob them of their drummer! At first Husky didn’t want to do it, but then Bob contacted him and said, ‘There’s only one person I want to see take over the sticks in Asphyx and that’s you!’ In the end it was the right choice. We’ve got a great atmosphere back in the band again. We started working on this album and it was as natural as it was when Bob was in the band.”
Any loyal fans anxious about how the new Asphyx material would turn out will be instantly reassured when the marauding spite of new album opener Candiru erupts from the speakers. As with everything else on Incoming Death, the band’s ninth full-length, it’s both a shrewd capturing of that irresistible trademark sound and a genuine upgrade: bigger, bolder and somehow more accessible than past efforts, but every bit as ugly, violent and crushing as long-term admirers will expect.
“We knew that Deathhammer was a good album, so maybe we worried about equalling it or topping it, but then songs started coming out and we were on the right track right away,” says Martin. “Of course, if we hadn’t liked any of this stuff, we wouldn’t have put it on an album. We know what the fans like and what they expect from us, and we always deliver the goods. We won’t rush something out and put something rubbish on the market. There’s already enough rubbish out there!”
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It may struggle to usurp The Rack as the Asphyx fan’s masterpiece of choice, but Incoming Death is still an outright revelation. For all its neck-slicing intensity, this is an album brimming with catchy riffs, momentous grooves and, perhaps most surprisingly, a few moments of epic melodic grandeur, most notably on monumental album centrepiece The Grand Denial.
“The melodic stuff, credit goes to Paul [Baayens, guitarist],” Martin notes. “When we were recording the drum tracks, I had no idea what he had in mind for the songs, so when he came back with all these melody lines I was like, ‘Jesus Christ!’ ha ha! It really pushed me to improve the lyrics I had already, because he really put a lot of feeling into everything, if you can say that about death metal! The songs all had these little surprises. The total variety on this album is incredible. But as long as it’s brutal and as long as it’s Asphyx, we’re happy.”
Throughout his career, particularly with Asphyx and recent (but now former) band Hail Of Bullets, Martin van Drunen has developed a reputation as one of death metal’s most well-read and eloquent lyricists, albeit firmly within the grim and gruesome confines of the genre’s usual preferred subject matter. As you might expect, Incoming Death certainly has plenty to say about the horrors of war but it also delves into science fiction, natural catastrophes and blood-soaked gallows humour, too.
“It’s always the usual death metal subjects, you know?” Martin chuckles. “It’s good fun! Well, not always good fun… some of it is quite sad, ha ha ha! Books and reading are my main inspiration, for sure. Back in the day, Iron Maiden used to do that, too. Like To Tame A Land, which is about Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune… you’d see that Maiden were reading a lot, too, and everyone knows that they’re not stupid people, you know? No stupid clowns would do what they do and do it for so long. As a kid I always read a lot, whether it was Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe or whatever. I must admit I can’t read something heavy every day, so sometimes it might be a trashy thriller or whatever, but if I didn’t read I would probably end up drinking too much again, ha ha ha!”
Remarkably, Asphyx are only one year away from celebrating their 30th anniversary (albeit with no one in the band who was there at the start), and yet they could hardly be further removed from the stereotype of veteran bands going through the motions out of sheer, mindless habit. Instead, Incoming Death points to a sharpening of focus and newfound levels of enthusiasm, as these hardened troopers return to disseminate their ghoulish death metal gospel with an intensity that most younger bands would do well to emulate. The brutal way remains the only way, and Asphyx are back on the frontline and hungry to cause fresh carnage.
“We’re in a really good place right now,” Martin grins. “It’s been going great and I think I’m enjoying it more than ever. Sometimes I catch myself onstage and I stop for a few seconds, and I just think, ‘Fucking hell, I’m really enjoying this shit!’ Ha ha ha! What have I done to be graced with this fantastic opportunity? Being onstage really is the best drug there is. No matter where we are – in front of 50 people or 10,000 – it’s all bloody great!”
INCOMING DEATH IS OUT NOW VIA CENTURY MEDIA