"Drifting in the Crypt" assembles everything they ever laid to tape, which was mostly demos aside from the aforementioned EP, "Fresco Lungs." That release perhaps holds closest to the obvious death metal template musically, what with its growled vocals and fairly straightforward (compared to everything else) song structures, but the lengthy songs (two nearing ten minutes each) and the oblique cover art (a lone man standing in the desert looking at the ground with a pyramid looming in the background, all on a WHITE background) suggest another sort of thought pattern at work, one far removed from the narrow confines of death metal as it was, a more arcane and inscrutable cosmic approach. The rest of the material, especially the earlier demos, exemplify this removed view. These were three young Finnish kids taking it all in and spitting it back out, filtering it through their own weirdo prisms, turning extremity and aggression into some sort of comic book universe full of violence and color. For a band with such little experience, these songs are amazingly well-developed and idiosyncratic. There's a fully realized individuality right from the outset. While some obvious musical touchstones are there (At the Gates and most notably Slayer, whose chromatic riffing and eerie harmonized guitars show up in Phlegethon's music again and again) they aren't what you focus on-it's a seamless integration of influence rather than a crass regurgitation and you realize that these guys were having a lot of fun writing and playing this stuff as well.
Maybe that's what's missing from a lot of metal- a sense of carelessness, the joy of being in a band and creating music with other people, pushing yourself to go further and further and seeing how far out you can actually go before it gets too crazy. Too often metal gets bogged down under its own sense of seriousness and importance, not always to detrimental effect, but sometimes at an immense creative cost. Ideas get rejected and new directions go unexplored. Phlegethon never felt those sorts of restrictions and their fearlessness is evident in their constant search for an expansive musical palette. Every riff on this set is awesome. There is not a single wasted moment, from barreling, head-banging thrash intensity to pre-Cynic style off time jazz riffing to the simplest interpretations of the Gothenburg sound. It all fucking crushes.
The band never officially broke up despite little critical attention. Hiatuses were many and now the various members are involved in other more lauded projects like Hooded Menace, Vacant Coffin, Claws and Acid Witch but they have always come back to Phlegethon to reinterpret what death metal can actually sound like. "Drifting..." ends with three demos from '06, '07 and '08; each one soars through a different universe, mapping out the furthest points in the metal cosmos while always holding true to their own sensibilities. It's weird without being alienating, fun without being stupid or mindless, heavy without being needlessly punishing and classicist without being redundant. Why these guys were never as big as At the Gates or Napalm Death is utterly beyond me. They deserved to be, and if you have any sort of interest in death metal, this record demands shelfspace in your collection. Awesome song titles, too. Some highlights: "Into the Halls of Theory," "Endless Horse," "Karma Vest," In Harmony With Penance," "Petrified Hermits." Enigmatic and bizarre and never less than mind-blowing.