Sonic gasps for air as he sinks deeper underwater, his timer running out. Mario miscalculates a wall jump and plummets into a sea of lava. Mega Man shatters into bits of stardust on deceiving spikes. In your ears, you’re whisked away into pixelated adventure, uplifting, almost cheerful until you realize that the real battle is closer to your reality than you thought, that it’s localized right in your own mind. Much like the fates of your beloved side scrolling heroes, one thing is absolutely for certain in this life, even if you get a green mushroom. One painful reminder: DEATH AWAITS

DEATH AWAITS, released September 15, 2023 through Prosthetic Records, is Chicago cybergrind band Blind Equation’s second full-length album, following up their 2021 debut album LIFE IS PAIN, and is their first release on Prosthetic, a heavy label featuring artists like .gif from god, Wristmeetrazor, and fellow cybergrind group Thotcrime. Though they now play live with a full band, frontman James McHenry is still completely behind the wheel here, as the whole album, along with their prior output, is completely written, recorded and produced by him. Before these two albums, Blind Equation had already been making a name for themselves with their violently epic style of bitcrushed grindcore dating back to the first release on their Bandcamp, 2013’s Too Weird to Live, Too Strange to Die split with I Killed Techno!, along with the other EPs and singles they’ve released since. 

Before I dive into the audio side of the album, I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t touch on the visual aspect. While Blind Equation’s album art is typically busier and in your face, the artwork for DEATH AWAITS, designed by longtime visual collaborator Angel Gasm, is more spacious and dynamic this time around, displaying a sparkling neon pink and white flower blossoming through a black void, framed by the logos and typography. We’re given a lush, vibrant visual to contrast the brutality in store for the listener. Not only is this a gorgeous image, my favorite cover in their discography, but it can be seen as a representation of the clashing of feelings on the album, a dichotomy between the brightness that comes through in the music and the darkness and emptiness laid out in its lyrics - or maybe the other way around; the flower could be a representation of that pain and suffering. As these feelings intensify, they blossom out and show their true colors and parts underneath; death blooms, as they say. 

In the past, McHenry has stated that the project pulls influence from various sources, namely Finnish power metal, early cybergrind artists like the previously mentioned split mate I Killed Techno, and the soundtracks of bullet hell games like Touhou. On DEATH AWAITS, these inspirations can still be heard through the epic melodies and bustling instrumentation, as well as the harsher points of vocals and textures. In fact, there are songs on this album that don’t sound too far off from a Touhou song that’s been turned up to 11 and screamed over. Blind Equation have very much stepped up their game on all fronts. While it still has all the defining traits that make them great, the music here sounds more refined and improved on with more dynamics in volume, instrumentation, and vocal styles, resulting in a fuller sound overall. Other bands in the genre may opt for more intense and menacing melodies in their music, but Blind Equation usually keep theirs very chipper and bright-sounding throughout, with upbeat keyboard lines that are contrasted by the black and death metal influence in the vocal and rhythm sections. McHenry’s vocals are at their best here; his screams sound more fine-tuned and diverse as he occasionally swaps out his signature shriek for black metal highs or deathly gutturals. And when he’s not screaming, he has some surprise spots of clean vocals on a couple tracks that are pitched and layered in autotune, bringing elements of scenecore and hyperpop into the mix as well. 

Listening to DEATH AWAITS is like a high-intensity, high-speed boss battle set in an 8-bit Hell where the final boss is the Devil himself, that Devil actually being a manifestation of your own depression and personal struggles and, like final bosses tend to be, too strong to beat. You’ve spent hours upon hours trying to figure out the right strategies, the right combos, and nothing works. You lose track of the amount of quarters you’ve slid into the machine, thinking that this next life will be the one where you finally beat it, just to get “GAME OVER” again. At least the fast, exciting chiptune soundtrack playing over the battle lifts your spirits just a little bit, contrasting the frustration and sadness you feel as you mash the buttons and grip the joysticks. DEATH AWAITS, much like Blind Equation’s previous output, is a very bleak, hopeless album, the lyrics filled with self-loathing and anguished lyrics of internal agony, suffering, and failure to change yourself for the better. Any few glimmers of hope, any sort of light at the end of the tunnel, is immediately snuffed out in the next line, upon realizing that it’s near impossible to reach, that all this effort is ultimately worth nothing. It almost seems on this album that McHenry is spitting in the face of death while also reaching out to embrace it. The lyric “I’m grateful every day I didn’t kill myself” on the track “warmth” feels contradictory in the context of the album, unless this gratitude is that one’s suffering is going to continue, that there will be more life to hate. 

Clocking in at just under a half hour with 10 tracks, DEATH AWAITS doesn’t leave itself any room for filler or introductions, cutting the bullshit for an all-out onslaught that comes and goes in a flash of heavy electronics and rage. The album opens swinging right out the gate with the pummeling title track that throws us into a barrage of rumbling kick drums and swirling keyboards, a combination that is a common staple of Blind Equation’s music and featured in some capacity on nearly every track here. We also get tastes of evil organ lines and almost 80s sounding synths at the end of the song. Lyrically, hope is already lost. Our frontman opens the album as an empty shell in a grave, and as the album continues, we can only stand and watch as we wonder whether he will claw himself out or keep digging. 

From here we go into the second track, entitled “speedrunning life,” which is fitting to the sound and lyrical content of the song. Its lyrics are about life passing you by, speedrunning your existence at any percentage, too caught up in self-hatred to truly see the life that you’re losing: 

“High off the Reign, lie to myself that I’m alright / Listen to Bladee to mask the pain I’ve put aside”

I must say, this is the first time I’ve heard both Reign Energy and Drain Gang referenced in any sort of music, and was unexpected especially in such a heavy genre, but if floating in an ethereal, unmedicated daze of hyper amounts of caffeine and music is how one wants to destroy themselves, then so be it. I just wonder when the long-anticipated Blind Equation and Bladee collab album is coming. “speedrunning life” ends with a line that serves as a mission statement for the themes of not only the album, but for Blind Equation’s music as a whole: 

“My suffering is my own fault / Repeating myself in every fucking song”

Here it is shown that the feelings and problems faced in McHenry’s lyrics are brought upon by himself, and though he knows this, any sort of help is refused or not sought after, instead opting for worsening of mental state and digging a deeper hole. The awareness of “Repeating myself in every fucking song” is also accurate to Blind Equation’s lyricism, as most of their music consistently touches on these topics. Getting better starts with yourself, and realizing the things you can do to improve yourself and how you can reach them, and working to obtain these goals in order to feel better in your mind day to day. DEATH AWAITS offers us no solution, or any effort to find one. It only grits its teeth and bears it as it subjects us to the raw catharsis of airing out your problems and what goes on in your head. But if you look at the album in that way, as a therapeutic exercise, it can be seen as a step in the right direction, right? 

The instrumentals on this album are incredibly solid; McHenry expands on the sound of prior releases and offers more variation while still sticking to the formula Blind Equation are known for. The keyboards are endlessly twisting and turning, giving us some memorable melodic passages here and there while mostly staying spazzy, the equivalent of furiously keysmashing and managing to hit all the right notes. Under the synths the programmed drums are always tight and rapid, spitting out near constant blast beats that are sometimes interrupted by slower, headbanging breakdowns. The speeds and patterns coming from the rhythm section are very calculated and mechanical, but they’re produced in a way that makes them full and punchy in a way that doesn’t sound too different from actual live drums. I do have to give props to their live drummer for being able to keep up. There are some moments across the album where the brutality backs off for a second, cutting out the drums to highlight some lighter synth passages, just for the drums to jump right back in at a breakneck pace.  You even get a dance beat or two on tracks like the following “you betrayed the ones you love”, the second single to be released. Its lyrics deal with fake friends, those who let success get to their heads and selfishly put others down as a means to get ahead. Blind Equation are no stranger to this topic, as it’s been covered on previous songs like “Shortages II” from LIFE IS PAIN. People like this exist everywhere, especially in music communities, and McHenry feels very strongly about the matter, seeing this person they once had a meaningful relationship with and only seeing someone soulless and dead inside, an empty corpse driving a hearse of nostalgia on a search for clout. 

“choke” opens with some chopped up breakbeats and one lone chippy synth line that builds the hype for the track until it hits full gear at the 11 second mark. This is one of the most dynamic and varied tracks Blind Equation offers. McHenry’s vocals back off to a shout in the middle, almost sounding like a spoken section in comparison to his screaming the rest of the time. After an awesome and emotional bridge, one of my favorites on the album, we’re treated with a pumping dancey part that for a brief moment sounds like a mental breakdown at the club, freaking out from agoraphobia while caught up in a sea of people and flashing lights in the middle of the floor, unable to escape. By the end of the song, we escape the excitement with washes of lighter synths that build back up into a chaotic finish. A sigh of relief. Almost. Until you remember again that your problems are far from over. 

Choosing “never getting better” as the lead single for DEATH AWAITS was a great move on Blind Equation’s part. This is easily the most single-ready song on the entire album; it’s catchy, it’s poppy, and it’s less intense than other tracks. If the previously mentioned section of “choke” teased at Blind Equation’s ability to make a really poppy song, this is them proving they can truly follow through with it. This song still has those signature circle pit synthesizers, rumbling drums and harsh screams, but we’re also welcomed with head-bobbing pop and dance beats, and clean vocals that have been pitch-shifted and autotuned. “never getting better” brings to mind hyperpop artists like 100 gecs if they were to dip their toes into nintendocore, especially with the aforementioned vocals sounding similar to those of Laura Les and Dylan Brady. Blind Equation are not the only ones dabbling in hyperpop - there’s a whole offshoot of cybergrind that focuses more on a heavy pop and rap flavor - but it’s very interesting to hear them go in that direction. And we absolutely can’t forget about the chorus. A cybergrind song with a chorus that’s guaranteed to get stuck in your head? Unthinkable! But while you’re tapping your toes and dancing around to the beat, don’t forget that you’re listening to a Blind Equation song, and these melodies are just barely masking the depressive messages underneath, a candy-coated lament for old days lost and of spending the present stuck in your head, painfully aware of the time you’re wasting while going through the motions:

“Never getting better / And it’ll always stay that way / Because I did this to myself”

The third and final single “killing me” features trap artist Rat Jesu, who delivers some filtered, bitcrushed cloud rap vocals over the thumping instrumental, which features a guitar solo in the second half that intertwines with an equally as epic synth line as the song comes back to the refrain one last time. I’m always game for music with any sort of awesome guitar solo, so this was definitely a standout track on the album for me.

 The two guest features on the album come right after the other as the next track “suffering in silence” features New Zealand digital hardcore artist DEATHTRIPPA, who contributes to yet another heavy hitter of a song. Here we get more melodic vocal passages contrasted by some very nasty screams and gutturals delivered by both vocalists, which sound pained and anguished when paired with the lyrical content. “suffering in silence” reads like a cry for help, or rather a desire for one’s pain to intensify, desperately pleading for the listener, someone, anyone to mutilate them “just so I can feel something”. 

“Rip out my eyes, and let the teeth shatter on the floor / Burning inside, I just want you to mutilate me more”

Penultimate track “warmth” opens with a rave instrumental reminiscent of a song like “Techno Viking” by I Shot the Duck Hunt Dog. This song features some of my personal favorite performances on the whole album, both in terms of music and vocals. “warmth” is another acknowledgement that nothing will ever change, that it’s too late to kick your bad habits since they’ve already caught up with you. The warmth will continue to fade, whether that’s physically from loss of life or referring to the warmth in your soul. We’re always inching closer to the end, whether we want to or not. 

That being said, we’re down to the final track on the album, “the last glimpse of me.” Clocking in at a whopping 4 minutes and 45 seconds, this is the longest song on DEATH AWAITS, as well as the longest song in Blind Equation’s entire discography. Talk about proggy. Like many a closing track before it, this is probably the grandest and most emotional song on the album. It’s somber and has its moments of being subdued yet still maintains some intensity as McHenry delivers throat-shredding screams over the track as the instrumental builds up in volume. The music being screamed over fittingly has the feel of the end credits song of a video game, something you’d hear as the credits scroll across the landscapes you’ve just spent the last countless hours exploring and knowing like the back of your hand, as it clicks that the journey is now over. This idea works well with the lyrics, as they call to mind the title of the album, a sentiment that is mentioned in both the opening and closing tracks and bookends the album perfectly:

“Death Awaits / Haunting me / A never ending bad dream / Taking the ones I love, consuming the last glimpse of me”

Reading into the lyrics, this song feels the most personal and hard-hitting out of the bunch, as it mourns a loved one who was lost 5 years prior. This leaves McHenry wishing they could see him now, wondering when his own time will come, and how unpainful the uncertainty is of the when and the how. All that’s known for sure is that death is coming eventually and will continue to affect you and everyone around you, and that’s just something that we have to come to terms with. When comparing this song to the title track, it feels like throughout the runtime, there’s been some sort of development, a slightly better change in mentality. Instead of hoping for death and thinking he’s better off that way, McHenry now shows almost a fear of the inevitable, and a hope that it isn’t by his own hand when it happens. The void is still staring him full in the face, but this time around his arms falter when reaching to embrace it. This message being laid out over the nostalgic and emotional instrumental gives the song a very bittersweet feeling, and as the album’s credits roll, the song ends with a few lone synths that fade away and twinkle out like stars. It’s hard to tell whether the tears are happy or sad; either way, they sting. 

DEATH AWAITS is enjoyable through and through; its melodies will stay in your head and the heavy breakdowns and blasting passages will keep it spinning. It’s fast, it’s heavy, it’s catchy, it’s raw, it’s emotional. It’s a culmination of everything Blind Equation has done so far, tightened and improved on all fronts. It’s safe to say this is their best release yet, overall a very accomplished album and a grand display of catharsis. This record is a worthy followup to LIFE IS PAIN and one of the standout cybergrind albums of 2023, a breakneck ride through the mental turmoil and agony of being human. If you’re a fan of cybergrind or of electronics in your heavy music, let this be your sign to give it a listen. 

Standout Tracks: never getting better, choke, the last glimpse of me, warmth, killing me

For fans of: Kizumono No Hanako, Gonemage, ZOMBIESHARK!, Mikau, Alluce, I Shot the Duck Hunt Dog, Weekly Words and Grammar, Monomate, 100 gecs, WorldsBiggestBassProShop.

CDs and vinyl of DEATH AWAITS are available on Blind Equation’s Bandcamp, as well as on the Prosthetic Records webstore. You can catch them live on their spring tour of Asia with bedroom screamo band Your Arms Are My Cocoon.

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