High Command – Beyond the Wall of Desolation

Is there anything better than finding exactly what you’ve been looking for? Not in the “I lost my keys and I need to drop everything to track them down before I totally lose my mind” sense, but rather the fortuitous, dumb luck kind. The kind where the journey isn’t really a journey at all, but the eventual of discovering said thing becomes this weird little point of pride for you, even though you didn’t put much effort into it? Whether it’s a tasty burrito in a nearby neighborhood, a perfect piece of furniture, or a sweet bin find at your local record store, it’s a thrill, a joy, and a surprise all at once. At this point it should be pretty easy to figure out how I feel about High Command’s debut Beyond the Wall of Desolation, but… why?

If it wasn’t obvious from the flail-wielding figure on the album cover, this is some adventurous, battle-ready type shit. Stuff that, unlike my above examples, wholly and totally is about the journey. If you aren’t already familiar with this Worcester, Massachusetts-based quintet, you could be forgiven for assuming Beyond the Wall of Desolation was going to be some extremely dorky power metal-type stuff (don’t take it personally power metal peeps). Instead, High Command distribute the fucking pain with a thorough, 43-minute thrashing. Re-thrash this isn’t; but these dudes don’t quite fit in your typical crossover thrash box, either. Littered with nuggets of vintage heavy metal and stoner rock, there’s a little bit of that old school magic that helps them pull off the fantasy vibe without too much kitsch.

The production quality on Beyond… is head and shoulders above their prior output, and it really helps shape their intensity along with the overall vision of the album. They sound dynamic – the guitars of Ryan McArdle and Mike Bonetti are punchy with vivid leads, Chris Berg’s bass is weighty and full without dipping into the overly rhythmic or groove-based styles of other crossover acts, the drums are crisp and snap like Ryan Pitz is breaking bones instead of smashing drum heads, and Kevin Fitzgerald’s shrieks scathe and sear to the point where your eyes might start to water from hearing his beer breath. On every level it’s clear, visceral, and tight. Huge kudos to Seth Manchester and Brad Boatright for getting this to sound so razor-sharp. 

The impeccably sharp lead work (check “Inexorable Darkness,” “Visions From The Blade,” or “Devoid of Reality”) is a nice complement to their nimble, yet memorable compositions. Often of the straight-from-the-depths-of-hell Slayer variety (you bet there’s some nice bombs in here), they’re tactfully unleashed and usually unfold over five-or-so minutes. The album overall moves quickly, yet it’s not all balls-to-the-wall speed. The tasty intro of “Impaled on the Gates” is an evocative change of pace, and there’s plenty of pit-friendly mid-tempo moments to relish (see “Merciless Steel,” “Forged to Kill”). Hell, there’s even a string arrangement that rounds out “Devoid of Reality” – a nice touch that lends an appropriately cinematic scope to the album’s concept. There are plenty of classic thrash gallops to whet your headbanging appetites, but they aren’t abused, keeping the record on an even keel so these moments have maximum impact each time. In doing so, High Command demonstrate a whip-smart level of restraint by dispensing the tropes in a way that’s consistently fresh.

The same applies for the overall sequencing and arc of the narrative. Instead of the reality-based grit of a Judiciary or Power Trip, what High Command offer is more in tune with classic metal fantasy (your eyes didn’t deceive you). In true vintage fashion, the gist of Beyond the Wall of Desolation is a Tolkien-esque adventure where the narrative follows a hero who vanquishes oppressors (with an amazing fucking sword, of course). If this isn’t your thing, it’s not likely to change your mind. Still, it’s all delivered in a way that’s quite a few notches less cheeky than 3 Inches of Blood, so… there’s a chance. Anthemic, wail-along moments are present, but they’re not the purpose of each and every track. Instead opting for a more story-driven, evolving concept across the record; Beyond… is more cohesive and matured.

I feel like I’ve been waiting forever for a worthy successor to Iron Age’s basically untouchable strain of crossover thrash (side note: seems like quite a few other folks were, too, as it’s getting a reissue via 20 Buck Spin), and High Command seem to be worthy of the throne. We’d be fortunate to get a thrash record as relentless as this, but the concept and vibe of the record make it a distinct experience. More importantly, the concept doesn’t appear to get in the way of this being a fun, visceral thrash record (not that the two can’t coexist) that you can party with. It’s every bit as much of a blast this in your car with the windows down or chug some beers with your buddies kind of album as it is a sit down and pore over the liner notes kinda thing. So please excuse me while I crack open a Hamms and scream along… “Into the darkness we ride!”

Beyond the Wall of Desolation is available courtesy of Southern Lord Records wherever quality albums are sold.

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