Death metal can seem a crowded marketplace at times, but bands as distinctive as COGNIZANCE generally tend to rise to the top. Ultimately, the genre has become an intermittent battle between the instinctively creative and the lazily generic, and it's albums like "Upheaval" that are doing much of the hard work to ensure that death metal's more adventurous tendencies are continually exploited. COGNIZANCE are a straightforward technical death metal band at heart, as showcased on their utterly ripping debut album "Malignant Dominion", released two years ago, but it's the subtle details that separate their music from the mediocre majority. This is an album of punishing grooves, virtuoso syncopation and moments of outright, old-school unpleasantness. But read between the lines and there are numerous flashes of progressive ingenuity and gleefully cross-pollinated extreme strains, all contributing to a deceptively complex and absorbing whole.
Noticeably more concerned with songwriting and dynamics than with simple, heads-down savagery, COGNIZANCE have pulled off the rare feat of becoming more intense and more sophisticated at the same time. Songs like "Decaying Gods" are strategically designed to get heads banging, and vocalist Henry Pryce has the classic deathly roar to seal the deal, but there is a loose-limbed, almost jazzy feel to its execution, with angular melodic motifs and a faint whiff of blackened dissonance bringing depth and texture to the onslaught. Similarly, "The Mouth Which Cannot Speak" takes off in classic tech-death fashion, violent and precise, before veering off for a sumptuous, none-more-prog instrumental break. Even more dazzling, both "Syntheticus I: Atrophy" and "Syntheticus II: Refuge" hammer and slash with old-school spirit aflame, but with a constant stream of skewed ideas woven around an archetypal, hyper-blasting percussive skeleton.
In truth, COGNIZANCE are a band in an ongoing state of evolution, and "Upheaval" sounds more like a starting point for wilder, more exploratory music than an endgame in itself. Either way, this is about as imaginative and ferociously focused as modern tech-death gets. If songs like blistering opener "Hymns" and its climactic counterpart "Aeon Sickness" are any indication, COGNIZANCE are way ahead of the game but still devoted to crushing skulls. Someone should give these boys a medal.