It’s safe to say that the supposedly b-tier thrash acts have largely outshone the genre’s more prominent acts in the modern era. Once-overlooked bands like Testament, Exodus, Kreator and (I’ll even concede) Overkill have consistently put the bulk of the Big Four’s output to shame, at least since the turn of the new millennium. Though they remain a step behind their brethren in terms of consistency, you could arguably have added Denmark’s Artillery to that list on the strength of their last album, 2016’s Penalty by Perception. With that album, the Danes delivered a glorious mix of classic thrash and NWOBHM sensibilities—culminating in what is easily their best album since their 2007 (second) reformation and arguably of their entire career as well. The band, now well into the fourth decade since their debut, sounded completely re-invigorated and, for the first time, perhaps ever, in the band’s history, the thrash world had good reason to look forward to a new Artillery album.
Unfortunately, The Face of Fear does seemingly everything in its power to quash that momentum. In contrast to its vital predecessor, the album feels entirely sluggish and shows every bit of Artillery’s considerable age. The riffs are plodding, the song structures bland and repetitive and none of the vocal melodies leave any sort of impression. Somewhat paradoxically, it is the band’s more youthful members who sound the weariest. Michael Bastholm Dahl, whose existence scarcely predates that of the band itself, and whose melodies so brilliantly commanded their previous effort, sounds utterly flat here. His bland vocal lines become quickly monotonous and none of his lyrics stand out in any way. Just the mere mention of Penalty by Perception cuts like “In Defiance of Conformity” or “Live By the Scythe” immediately brings to mind Dahl’s idiosyncratic phrasings, but nothing of his vocal work on The Face of Fear sticks or even stands out in the moment.
The album has its moments. “Sworn Utopia” is lead by some fierce riffing from veterans Michael and Morten Stützer and comes about as close to a standout track as the album has to offer. Likewise, the record’s final original offering “Preaching to the Converted” finally picks up the pace enough to hint at the more invigorated Artillery of previous offerings, with its mild Phrygian harmonies bringing to mind those of 1990’s By Inheritance. Only begging to fire up come the end of the album’s brief but tiresome thirty-six minutes is hardly enough to redeem the record, however, and—as if to add insult to injury—the two re-recorded numbers used to pad out the album only go to show how sluggish the newer material is by comparison. Although it sounds like Mötley Crüe than any traditional thrash metal offering, the youthful energy of “Mind of No Return”, from the band’s original 1982 We Are The Dead demo, instantly eclipses the nine rote tracks that precede it; and the fact that even the ludicrously titled “Doctor Evil” (he didn’t spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called “Mister”, thank you very much), from 2013’s Legions, overshadows the new material as well only further exposes how truly uninspired it really is—though why a five-year-old track featuring all the same members would need to be re-recorded in the first place escapes me.
The Face of Fear sounds entirely dated—and not in a fun, throw-back kind of way. Penalty by Perception was by no means a modern-sounding record, but it sounded energized enough to inspire a healthy nostalgia than merely sounding like a relic of a bygone era. The songwriting chops just aren’t here on this record and none of the performances are particularly inspiring either. Artillery always seem to be that thrash metal band who just barely missed out on making the big(ger) time, and maybe this album is just simply another moment in their discography where they fumbled at the finish line.
The Face of Fear is out now through Metal Blade Records, but what I’m trying to tell you is that you should really pick up a copy of Penalty by Perception instead.