One of the unfortunate by-products of the CD era was the need to make albums longer and longer. It was as if bands thought that just because you could put almost 80 minutes of music on an album that you somehow should put 80 minutes of music on an album. Hour of Penance, who go all out on their (seventh) album, Cast The First Stone, harbor no such illusions, trimming the fat for a non-stop riff-o-rama of speed and brutality that tears through nine songs in just over half an hour.
On their seventh album, the band decided to address what they deem “a conflict of civilizations” between “radical Islam” and the West. Their belief is that Western values have been placed in danger by attacks such as the Bataclan massacre in France. The music certainly invokes the violence of this conflict, with a typically tight-but-frantic performance by drummer David Billia providing the machine-gun blast beats that invoke the weapons used in such attacks. Billia may be the cornerstone of the band, as many new listeners may notice precise-yet-never-mechanical pounding. His snare drum tone at time suggests a march; the march of the damned, anyone?
The album sets the tone with the opener “Burning Bright”, exploding off the launching pad with all thrusters engaged. A spooky siren in the middle of the song reinforces the album’s theme, as if the general aggression and menacing performance are not enough. The second song and title track, “Cast The First Stone,” opens with a triumphant-but-melancholy dual harmony guitar riff vaguely reminiscent of Iron Maiden’s “Wasted Years.” As the riff continues into the first verse, listeners may assume it will be repeated throughout the song. Not so fast! In one of the album’s best moments, the band accelerates and takes a hard right into a hard-hitting riff that takes the song to the next level. Guitarist/vocalist Paolo Pieri’s growls are up front in the mix and combined with faint whispers. His vocals are the other strongest element beside the drumming. On the band’s debut, Disturbance, Pieri mixed in some shrieking but he has banished that to the dustbin of history, wisely playing to his strengths. The opening riff reappears towards the frantic end, bringing things full circle.
“Damnatio Memoriae” keeps things rolling with a slower, heavier riff before Billia kicks the song into full speed high tempo. The main riff contrasts to the riff of the first two songs in that it emphasizes the heavy, rather than the lightning picking that is more the band’s trademark. “Horn Of Flies” is back to full throttle, grabbing the listener by the throat and not letting go as well as bringing the dual guitar harmonies back into play. “Iron First” features memorable vocal phrasing, another strength of the band and not something that all death metal bands can accomplish. While certainly not pop hooks (by a long shot!) the vocal phrases can be earworms, kicking around in listeners’ skulls after the record winds up. The band also incorporates some orchestral flourishes into the mayhem just for the hell of it. Given that the album’s conflict theme stretches back hundreds of years, it is an aural reminder that these problems have been around for some time. The song wraps up with a sneaky, fake-out ending before crashing down like a gate. “XXI Century Imperial Crusade” invokes the album’s theme with the intro and by borrowing another trick from the Slayer playbook, this time their distinctive bent pitch lead style. While it doesn’t seem possible, this song may be slightly faster than the previous tunes, lending an air of careening towards the apocalypse as the record concludes in a burst of fury.
The second half of the record continues apace. “Shroud Of Ashes” is absolutely relentless. “The Chains Of Misdeed” contains more infectious shouted vocal phrases before slowing down for a kick in the teeth. “Wall Of Cohorts” opens with a foreboding minor-key riff that recalls some of the slower Slayer numbers before pummeling on with the band’s signature speed riffing. The band employs some contrast on this one, at times shifting gears into a stuttering riff that turns so fast it makes the listener feel as if they’re listening in a car that slammed on the brakes on a freeway.
Striking a near-perfect balance between technicality and brutality, Cast The First Stone is a great way to kick off 2017. This is state-of-the-art death metal and sets a high bar for the rest of the year.
Cast the First Stone is out January 27 via Prosthetic Records. You can pre-order the album here.