Signs play an important role in punk culture as a whole and even more so in the many subgenres that have consolidated throughout the years. The most obvious example of this process of meaning circulation through signs is the d-beat genre, one that is saturated with visual and sonic references to and signifiers of the signified (you-know-who). In fact, you could rightly claim that without such an intricate relationship between signifier and signified, this genre would simply not exist. It is the very basis of its existence. Just like signifiers like boots, braces and being hard and a bit thick (some would add posing in front of a brick wall with a wage worth of retro clothing) are necessary to oi music.
The same goes for the crust genre and its subdivisions. When dealing with the old-school metallic kind, specific signs are both required - to some extent - and expected. You could very well choose to ignore these tacit meaning-producing rules and challenge them by picking a name that does not echo the crust templates at all through the use of colourful family-friendly artworks for your stenchcore band - as it has been vastly renamed since the 00's revival - but the risk is high and your Lp will probably quietly end up in the two-quid record bin faster than it is supposed to be. Again, we come back to the old debate of punk's conservativeness versus punk's cultural assertion. The distorted crasher style allows a bit more liberty because of its love for chaos, noize and metaphorical dementia so anything can go really (crude drawings of crusty punks are still recommended though) but when it comes to stenchcore, things are much more traditional and, dare I say it, strict. Even Axegrinder took stick because their Lp included a colour photograph of themselves. Posers.
As a band openly embracing the subgenre's codes, Philadelphia's Mortal War displayed strong totemic signifiers of crustness for the faithful to recognize, respond to the call and proudly rally around. Let's take a look at the band's semiotic tropes. First the name Mortal War, beside sounding crustier than thou was taken from an Effigy song appearing on their 2001 split with Äpärät. So that's already a pretty massive clue although you do have to be au fait with 00's Japanese crust. It's a prerequisite for engaging maximally with the music, although, of course, Gates of Hell is perfectly enjoyable without prior crust expertise. Let's move to the title of the tape. One would not be wrong to see a reference to The Mob's famous hit but it might also just be an assemblage of words pointing toward things typically evil often mentioned in crust - and Hell is supposed to be a pretty bad place to find yourself in. So it is probably a two-in-one operation. Or they drew the names from a hat. Who knows. The cover depicts some grim-looking monoliths, an indirect nod to the pagan imagery of Amebix, a very safe interpretation since MW also pull out a cover of "Winter" on the tape. Finally, you can find the traditional Out From the Void-era celtic knot border on the cover for maximum crustness. To top it off, the band stated that the thing was recorded in 2017 "under the crust moon" and, just in case you are not the sharpest knife in the drawer, the band contact was warcruster(at)gmail.com. To be fair, the tape can easily attract your average fan of death, thrash or black metal as well - and anyone who likes thunderous renderings of the apocalypse - but I reckon Gates of Hell is primarily one for the initiated.
What about the music then? The demo kicks in with an Amebix-ish synth sound followed by the gloomy rings of bells - Sacrilege style - before unleashing a crushing Bolt Thrower moment as an opening to the first song, itself a heavy and dark mid-paced slice of stenchcrust like early-Stormcrow-meets-early-Hellshock. It ticks all the right boxes with tastes as the sound is intense, very heavy with an organic vibe and a singer who sounds like he has just been exhumed from the grave and is pretty pissed off about it. MW loved to play with atmospheres and narration as the songwriting cleverly includes darkly evocative introductions and conclusions (such as the aforementioned synth, the sound of wind, some soft and eerie guitar moments) thus enhancing the angry atmosphere of impending doom. The second number is an unstoppable mosh-compatible epic metal crust anthem, quite reminiscent of Stormcrow again (the title of "Slave to darkness" does echo Enslaved in Darkness afterall), that will have you headbang restlessly and possibly injure yourself in the process. Mosh safe.
Because of the narrative meaningfulness of the aforementioned sections framing the body of the songs, making the overarching story progress and improve, I chose to leave the first three songs - "Intro", "Slave to darkness" and "The battle's end" - on one single track. "The final war", far from being an Axegrinder cover, is a dissonant and bleak interlude about the madness of, well, war and it reminds me of Mindrot's "Hidden people" on their 1990 demo, not because they completely sound the same - they are still both spoken words with a black dissonant guitar and bear-like vocals - but because they both serve the purpose of introducing and further contextualizing a very serious meal, in MW's case a brilliant cover of "Winter", madness before death. Amebix, for their unique sound, is not an easy band to cover at all and I think the Philadelphians did very well in this perilous exercise, fortunately for them as the opposite would have implied a digital walk of shame and the Crust Council would have immediately banned them and required them to leave their crust pants and bullet belts at the door. The band's version of this classic manages to keep its trance-inducing quality and occult atmosphere but also make it heavier without falling in the obvious metal trap of putting double-bass drum everywhere and singing too gutturally. No ones wants to hear a constipated version of "Winter". The vocals sound very anguished and macabre indeed and the perfect production of the recording - heavy, groovy and dark but not too clear - allows the band to do an excellent Amebix cover, in fact one of the best I know.
As I mentioned in the Pollen post, many great bands arose from the Philadelphia punk scene in the 2010's (members also played in distorted raw punk act Aseptic, the not so dissimilar stenchcore unit Weald, d-beat fanboys Mania For Conquest and Pollen) and MW was one of my favourites, if not my favourite. I think the band started to record an album but things apparently fell through, too bad since I sense that it could have been a major crust work. Gates of Hell remains one of the strongest stenchcore efforts of the decade and if you are into the bigger names of the 00's apocalyptic crust revival like Hellshock or Stormcrow, MW will absolutely delight you.