Full credit to Martin Mendez. Best known as bassist with OPETH since 1997, the Barcelona-based Uruguayan could conceivably have swerved the side-project route altogether and been content with membership in one of the most revered bands on the planet. Instead, he launched WHITE STONES with excellent debut album 2020's "Kuarahy", establishing a crystal-clear blueprint for gnarly, old-school death metal with a pronounced, and perhaps inevitable, progressive streak. The latter does, of course, lead to certain moments on "Dancing Into Oblivion" faintly echoing the early works of Mendez's alma mater, but the band's second observation is distinctive enough in its own right to briskly club those comparisons away. Sonically rooted in the pristine grime of upper-level underground metal, WHITE STONES clearly scratches an old-school itch for everyone involved. An opening brace of "New Age Of Dark" and "Chain Of Command" showcases a subtle upgrade for the sound revealed on "Kuarahy". Those all-important shades of MORBID ANGEL and PESTILENCE are still clearly perceptible, but there is a wonkiness and mischievousness underpinning the riffs and arrangements, with intermittent bursts of refined melody enhancing the sum of those parts. Vocalist Eloi Boucherie is a commanding presence, too: audibly schooled in the classics, but with his own distinct tone, he brings fresh drama and danger with every successive growl. WHITE STONES truly come into their own on this album's lengthy centerpiece, "Iron Titans": nine minutes of fervently progressive and ruthlessly dark extremity, it's the first definitive evidence that Mendez's singular vision will transcend the familiarity of its musical roots. Likewise, "To Lie or to Die" is as much an exercise in warped, dissonant prog as it is a death metal tune, with its underlying Krautrock clatter and schizophrenic structure. "Freedom in Captivity" is even more startling. From its ululating, insouciant and breezily psychedelic intro, which mutates into the lurching, tumbling tech-death that erupts thereafter, it's progressive death metal of some description, but Martin Mendez's skill as a songwriter and virtuoso musician deserve a less reductive reputation. Although a teensy bit slender at 36 minutes, "Dancing Into Oblivion" is both original and substantial, while also hinting at more extravagant and out-there triumphs to come.

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