Tlazcaltiliztli, the first album from Californinan death-doom band Tzompantli is probably the heaviest album that I’m going to hear all year, and certainly one of the best. Drawing inspiration from indigenous Mesoamerican culture, the band and album concepts could not be more death metal. ‘Tlazcaltiliztli’ describes a ritual ceremony that translates to “nourishing the fire and sun with blood’”, while ‘Tzompantli’ refers to a traditional rack “used to display human skulls, often of enemies or sacrifices, in several Mesoamerican civilizations.” I hope you’re thinking of that gif where Nathan Explosion from Dethklok says “brutal” right now, because that’s certainly what I’m thinking about. I’m also genuinely happy that this isn’t a video review, since I won’t have to attempt to pronounce any of the track names.
Sonically, Tzompantli blend the hardcore-death metal crossover sound of heavyweights like Xibalba or Gatecreeper with sludge-infused death doom. The similarity with Xibalba is no mistake, since the bands share a guitarist in Huey Itztekwanotl o))), but Tzompantli are much more firmly camped in doom terrritory. Their sound is very bass-heavy and downtuned, and you could be forgiven during slow sections for thinking you were listening to Crowbar or Yob. It feels like the band have gone to great lengths to craft something that sounds like a molten ball of lead hitting the Earth with enough force to precipitate a mass-extinction event. The production and groove really create the sensation that the earth is shifting to the rhythm of the music.
But while the album revels in its moments of buzzsaw guitar insanity and the heaviest fucking caveman breakdowns you’ll hear in 2022, it has some incredible atmosphere and nuance. This is contributed in large part by the incorporation of traditional percussion and wind instruments, especially the iconic ‘death whistle’, and these elements are mirrored by the lyrics, which examine indigenous spirituality and rituals. Tzompantli weave these elements them into the music to very effectively build atmosphere and anticipation. This is seen in tracks like Tlatzintilli, where following the doomy intro a single, piercing flute blast signals the descent into death metal chaos. The captivating instrumental track Eltequi blends huēhuētl drums (reminiscent of 90s Sepultura or even Neurosis), with chanting, electric and acoustic guitars, and traditional flutes. Placed in the middle of the album, and it adds a great ritualistic ambiance, and leads into perhaps my favourite song on the album, Ohtlatocopailcahualuztli. This track is also a good opportunity to talk about another thing I love about the album, which is the great use of some doomy melancholy moments with sparse guitars and bells, reminding me of the eerie atmospheric sections that death-doom legends Disembowelment would use. These more melodic moments show a different side to the band, and show that they can mix it up with the best of traditional death-doom bands. The mournful opening to the album’s closing track, Yaotiacahuanetzli, is another showcase of how effectively the band shifts from an almost funeral doom style into brutal death metal. Finally, the tracks are surprisingly brief for death-doom, which helps to keep the energy up and leave you hungry for more at the end of the final track.
Overall, Tzompantli’s debut album impresses me more and more with repeat listens. Rarely do you hear a band incorporate genuinely groovy sludge riffs with death metal so well, and the addition of traditional instrumentation adds a lot of depth to the sound. It’s brutal death metal with a side of amplifier worship, and some fascinating inclusion of indigenous sounds, helping to take the music to strange new places. An excellent debut.