Hey there headbangers!
Bit of a mixed bag this round, although the Big Four is solid as always. I’m sticking with the quarterly format for now, but if thrash bands could try and space their albums out more and not just drop them all in the last month of the quarter, that would be super appreciated. Anyway, you’ve waited long enough, and there’s plenty of commentary to come, so let’s get on with it shall we?
The Big Four
Urne – Serpent & Spirit
England’s Urne are a band I, and many others, have been keeping an eye on ever since they released their outstanding debut EP The Mountain of Gold in 2018 and, while it may have taken a tad longer than expected for the band to come out with a proper, full-length record, the results were more than worth the wait.
Serpent & Spirit takes the Mastodon-meets-Machine Head template established on The Mountain of Gold and runs absolutely wild with it. Although Urne pull from a variety of distinct influences, their combination is surprisingly difficult to categorize. Its opening, nine-minute title track alone, for example, begins with a lush intro, reminiscent of Green and Yellow-era Baroness, before dropping into something more akin to As Daylight Dies-era Killswitch Engage, by way of Machine Head and giving way to a quasi-epic, contemplative chorus that bears distinctive vocal similarities to Danzing‘s “Dirty Black Summer.” And that’s just the opening track! Elsewhere Urne bring in more of a progressive influence, pulling from mid-period Death on lead single “Desolate Heart,” while fellow highlight “Memorial” brings to mind early Metallica through its instrumental thrash mastery.
In fact, Serpent & Spirit‘s only major flaw is that so much of what is remembered about the record is its invocation of other artists, rather than Urne’s own distinct sound or songs. “Memorial”, for example, lifts the bass line from Pantera‘s Domination breakdown before dropping into a prog section that reminds me of a Rush and/or Dream Theater song that I can’t quite place. Moments like these are likely knowing tributes. However, the lack of any other equally memorable hooks is the main thing holding Urne back from true greatness at this point, and the band would do well to hash out more of their own identity on subsequent albums.
The album’s only other potential drawback is its opening title-track. Not that it’s bad; quite the opposite. The track is such a formidable and climactic show of force that, my first few listens to the Serpent & Spirit I found myself already worn out come its conclusion, and really had to push myself through the rest of the record; not because it was a chore, but because I often felt like I’d already had my fill. The album’s unconventional pacing can also make it difficult to sink into at times, so I went and developed an alternative (and admittedly more conventional) track-order (as I am wont to do) which takes a bit more time to eases the listener into its expansiveness and which really helped me click with the record better. That order is:
1. A Tomb so Frail
2. The Palace of Devils and Wolves
3. Desolate Heart
4. Envy the Dead
6. Moon & Sky
7. Serpent and Spirit
8. Memorial – Sing Me to Rest
Serpent & Spirit seems to have been otherwise rabidly received, so maybe it’s just me, but with a little bit more refinement Urne have the potential to become modern metal staples in the way all their influence have been before them. This album is merely the beginning.
Project: Roenwolf – Edge of Saturn
Jon Schaffer’s involvement in the US Capital Riots at the start of the year was a pretty big blow for the (thrash) metal world. Like them or not, Iced Earth have been an immensely influential band, within the realms of traditional heavy, power and thrash metal, and Schaffer’s involvement in the insurgency (and subsequent detainment puts a definitive and reprehensible stain on their discography, while also calling into question many of the genre’s broader aesthetics (which is something we’re going to have to tackle again, when the new Megdeth album gets released). Thankfully, kickass progressive, power-thrash isn’t the sole realm of right-wing insurrectionists!
Introducing Project: Roenwolf in comparison to Schaffer and Iced Earth is perhaps doing them a disservice, after all, the music more than stands for itself. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that Edge of Saturn scratches many of the same itches Iced Earth have scratched in the past, albeit to a far superior standard than the Floridians have in recent years and with an added, Nevermore-ian progressive bent and an explicitly progressive, anti-fascist politics.
…Oh, and they’re also massive sci-fi dorks. The suggestively titled Edge of Saturn features tracks based around science fiction staples such as Mary Shelley, Dan Simmons, Andrzej Sapkowski and (yes, notorious racist) H. P. Lovecraft. The title track itself is apparently a continuation of their 2013 debut Neverwhere Dreamscape‘s “Split the Rings of Saturn”, and I’m betting ten-to-one that the band’s name is reference to one of their D&D campaigns. You don’t need to know any of that though, all you need care about is the shred, which Project: Roenwolf more than delver.
Flotsam and Jetsam – Blood in the Water
As I said when I first highlighted this record as part of our Release Day Roundup, I’ve never held any real reverence for Flotsam and Jetsam. Most of their output has been pretty bad and, although I know many other critics were quite taken with it, their last album, with the terrible cover art (which I swear included a tiny, demonic penis at one point?), didn’t do much to change that. Blood in the Water certainly has though!
It may have taken them fourteen records and thirty-five years, but the Arizonan outfit have finally produced something worthy of elevating them beyond being that band that that guy who used to be in Metallica also used to be in. Blood in the Water is a far cry from the band’s earlier, Bay Area-influenced output, boasting a sheen and songwriting style more comparable to modern Queensrÿche. The new approach fits the band, who are all but unrecognisable as the artists who once brought you Doomsday for the Deceiver (1986) and No Place for Disgrace (1988), like a glove.
Flotsam and Jetsam sound far more comfortable here than they ever have previously in their career, and the results reflect that comfort. The opening title-track is an absolute barnstormer and the road to equally apocalyptic closer “Seven Seconds ’til the End” is littered with similar career highlights. If it’s neck-snapping speed metal you’re looking for, look no further than “Brace for Impact”, or if you want something more melodically inclined, consider stopping by “Walls”. Really though, you can’t go wrong with any of the twelve tracks on Blood in the Water, which is more than worth Flotsam and Jetsam having stuck around all these years.
Steel Bearing Hand – Slay in Hell
You’ve probably already heard a lot about this record, seing as the Heavy Blog is Heavy staff having voted it one of the best albums of the first half of 2021 – and deservedly so!
Steel Bearing Hand pull from a lot of similar influences as many modern, retro-tinged mental acts. Yet, while their aesthetic might not be unique, the fact is, they simply do it better than anyone else (except for maybe Gatecreeper). They even do that thing where they throw an extra-long doom song on the end, which I’m getting pretty sick of. Yet, again, Steel Bearing Hand get away with it, both by being better in their execution than 99% of other acts out there doing something similar, but also by actually seeding the doom elements in their sound throughout Slay in Hell‘s earlier offerings. As compelling and masterful as the album’s speed metal opening salvo is, it’s the slow dredge of the delightfully titled “Tombspawn” that kicks it into high gear, and sets Steel Bearing Hand apart from the rest.
Those who enjoyed Asphyx‘s Necroceros from earlier this year but are perhaps looking for something a bit more streamlined should definitely check this album out, as should anyone else with an interest in nasty, death-tinged thrash metal. No matter the tempo, Steel Bearing Hand have got you covered.
Further Lessons in Violence
Ravager – The Third Attack
Germany’s Ravager are a relatively new proposition, and one which you’ll be hearing a lot more about in future if their third album is anything to go by. Opening the record with an instrumental track, followed by another minute of instrumental thrash is a confident move and one which pays off. It’s not long into intruders that you know you’re in safe hands and can just relax and let the riffs take you away. There’s an underpinning of Municipal Waste-esque crossover to The Third Attack. Ravager’s riffs hit a lot harder than the Virginians’, however, aligning them more closely with Warbringer or even mid-period Evile, while also blending in a bit of Teutonic speed metal. The band don’t quite have enough of their own personality to truly stand out at this stage, but their command of the genre is really quite impressive. Promising stuff.
Scythelord – Earth Boiling Dystopia
Some more promising newcomers, with more of a tech-death approach. As with The Third Attack, Earth Boiling Dystopia begins with an instrumental. While the results aren’t quite as instantaneous or reassuring, what follows is equally impressive. Like a lot of modern prog-tech bands, Scythelord pull pretty shamelessly from late-period Death, fitting the throwback style into an uncharacteristic tech-thrash template. It’s a promising premise and, for the most part, this international duo pull it off with aplomb. What’s lacking at the moment are the vocals, which are pretty rough and don’t compliment the band’s otherwise phenomenal musicianship in the manner it truly deserves. With a bit more refinement, we could have a really stellar band on our hands here.
Go Ahead and Die – Go Ahead and Die
It’s been a lot of smaller bands and artists dominating 2021’s musical output, but even then this new Max Cavalera joint seems to have flown relatively under the radar. Max has been on a real hot streak of late, consistently delivering some of the best records of his career. Go Ahead and Die isn’t quite up to the standards of the most recent Soulfly, Cavalera Conspiracy and Killer be Killed material, but it’s a worthy addition to Cavalera’s legacy, in its own right. It’s also the beginning of a new Cavalera legacy, the band being fronted by Max’s son Igor Armadeus Cavalera, Jr., who’se certainly picked up some chops from his esteemed father, alongside Khemmis and Black Curse drummer Zach Coleman.
Weirdly, the Cavalera project Go Ahead and Die most resemble is perhaps the short-lived Nailbomb, albeit with more of a hardcorefocus, than an industrial one. Although it might not have set the world afire, Go Ahead and Die is a satisfyingly nasty piece of crossover thrash that suggests a promising future for Cavaleras young and old alike.
Evile – Hell Unleashed
One of the more established thrash bands getting a lot of hype in 2021 are none other than the reformed Evile. It’s been a long time between records for British re-thrash pioneers, who last emerged with the outstanding Skull record in 2013. The eight-year gaps leads me to think that Hell Unleashed‘s relatively fervent reception is perhaps it’s a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, for, as solid and often elating an album as it is, I personally think this is easily the weakest entry in Evile’s otherwise severely underrated catalogue.
Don’t let me wrong, there are great moments to be had throughout Hell Unleashed, most of which are to be found in its second half, sandwiched between the oddly titled “The Thing (1982)” and its outstanding, eponymous closer, which easily ranks among Evile’s best songs to date. In fact, the record’s latter half, which includes a cover of Mortician’s “Zombie Apocalypse”, would have perhaps made for a more consistent and forceful return as a standalone EP. The album’s first half isn’t terrible, but new vocalist Ol Drake’s shockingly gruff vocals don’t work there nearly as well as they do on the record’s gnarlier later offerings and pastiches like the Seasons in the Abyss cribbing “Incarcerated” are worth of every single accusation of thrash’s stagnation as a genre that’s been thrown at the band in the past.
Bushido Code – The Ronin
I already spoke about this one in our Rotten to the Core column so I’m going to keep it short and sweet. If you enjoy Evile’s arsenal of Slayer riffs more than me and don’t mind crossover that’s more on the hardcore side of things, then Bushido Blade are the band for you! The band are made up of members from underground hardcore bands, including Fury of V, Choose Your Weapon and xRepresentx and, like Steel Bearing Hand, excel at something that, by all means, should be done and dusted, by executing it to a level that few if any other acts around at the moment are able to match,
Artillery – X
I don’t know if I’ve ever been more up and down on a band’s discography than that of Artillery. The hot streak the band were on from 1999’s outstanding comeback record B.A.C.K. to 2016’s phenomenal Penalty by Perception came to a screeching halt with 2018’s underwhelming The Face of Fear. The Danish thrahsers’ tenth full-length record X is a marked improvement on that record, but still falls far short of their reformation glory years. Tracks like “In Thrash We Trust” and “Turn Up the Rage” begin like modern thrash classics, but by the end of their run the sluggishness that characterized Face of Fear sets in again, leaving the record feeling far less than the sum of its parts.
There just isn’t enough variety here. The song structures themselves are repetitive and none of the individual songwriting is strong enough to warrant its repetitiveness. Artillery have never been the most forward-thinking band, but X really shows their age. The band don’t necessarily sound tired, and a lot of the guitar playing is on point, but there’s a lack of ambition here that is more than shown up by the new Flotsam and Jetsam material. It also just sounds way too clean. X isn’t a bad record, it’s just not a particularly interesting one, and with all the other outstanding thrash bands out there at the moment – new and old – there’s no real reason to add this to your collection, other than for the sake of completion
Machine Head – Arrows in Words from the Sky
There are a couple of reasons I haven’t covered Machine Head’s post Catharsis (2018) material here. First and foremost is the inclusion of Decapitated guitarist Wacław “Vogg” Kiełtyk to Machine Head’s touring line-up without any statement from the band regarding the kidnapping and rape charges of which he and the rest of Decapitated remain accused and not acquitted. To my knowledge, Kiełtyk has not actually contributed to the writing or recording of any Machine Head material, since joining the band in 2019. The second reason why I haven’t covered any of their intermittent material, however, is simply that all of it has been pretty terrible, and Arrows in Words from the Sky is no Exception.
This three track EP has been hailed as the best material Machine Head have come out with since whichever of their past four albums particularly took the respected reviewer’s fancy, which is true, but that also doesn’t make it good. Arrows in Words from the Sky is markedly better than all the embarrassing, bu metal-tinged radio rock singles they’ve been releasing over the past two years, but calling it a “return to form” is equally ingenuous. Sure, the title-track and “Become the Firestorm” sound like Blackening (2007) b-sides, but that’s all they sound like. “Become the Firestorm” in particular sounds like Machine Head pastiche, beginning with the expected pick scrape and being based around a watered down version of the riff from “This is the End”, punctuated by seemingly random displays of the band’s trademark-cum-overused natural harmonics, while “Arrows in Words from the Sky” is a pale imitation of “A Farewell to Arms”, itself an inferior rehash of the almighty “Descend the Shades of Night”, but with a deathcore breakdown in the middle for some reason. These kind of tracks feel as tired as they did in 2014, when the band first ran the formula into the ground on Bloodstone and Diamonds, but with worse vocals. “Rotten”, meanwhile sounds like a leftover track from 2018’s, much maligned Catharsis with even more of those natural harmonics mashed into it and, were it released on that record, would be rightfully criticised for its basic songwriting, weak, aged vocals and lazy lyrics.
Personally, I loved Catharsis, which I greeted as a welcome return to livelier and more adventurous songwriting after the bloated Bloodstone and Diamonds, so to me this feels like a real regression – a surrender even, if the band’s passions truly lie with the more radio friendly concoctions they’ve been coming out with in the interim. When it comes down to it Machine Head are probably my favourite band of all time – it’s them or Metallica – so maybe I just expect more from them, but a Blackening rehash didn’t cut the mustard in 2014 and it shouldn’t cut it now. Machine Head have proven time and time again that they’re better than this, and their fans should demand more from them an inferior imitation of their glory years. An acknowledgement of the rape and kidnapping charges against Kiełtyk, at least, would also be appreciated.
See you next quarter to talk about the new Desecrator album.