Hey there headbangers,
It’s been a bit quiet in the thrash metal world lately. Across the board, it seems like the spike in interesting underground releases that flourished during the (ongoing) COVID-19 pandemic is slowly giving way as more of the bigger bands who have been silently sitting on their stockpiles begin to poke their heads out and test the waters as the industry returns to semi-functionality. No where has this been better illustrated perhaps than in terms of the thrash genre, with the past few months only really giving rise to a handful of impressive if-flawed underground efforts and couple of disposable covers compilations, with big name releases from Trivium, Exodus and Bullet for My Valentine, among many other higher-profile releases, suddenly slated for the year’s back end.
As such, I don’t have a “Big Four” for you this round, there being only one record I deemed truly worthy of the honour. It’s a record that comes with quite a story, however, and I was glad to be able to catch up with the band to help clarify some of the details as the situation evolved.
The Big One
Desecrator – Summoning
For the past decade, Descrator have been an Australian metal institution. You were sure to run into their logo, brandished across posters and flyers, at any gigs you attended, and probably their looming, be-skulleted frontman Riley Strong as well, at shows in Melbourne and all across the country. The band made their name on the live circuit, recording their first album Live ’til Death during a set at Melbourne’s iconic Arthouse venue the night it closed down, only getting around to releasing a “proper” studio album in 2017, without loosing any momentum in-between. This year marked the arrival of their long-awaited third album, Summoning, which promised a further leap in quality, based on their outstanding 2018 EP Manic and the addition of Andrew Hudson, of fellow Melbournian thrash titans Harlott to the line-up, and ended up blowing away all expectations.
Front to back, Summoning is a thrasher’s dream, delivering every riff, every lead break and drum barrage, every shrieking wail with a palpable passion that is perfectly captured, once again, by Toyland Studios’ Adam Calaitzis (Blood Duster, Contrive). Desecrator’s enthusiasm has always been apparent, but what sets Summoning apart from and above the band’s previous material is the improved songwriting. The band have always had an arsenal of riffs at their disposal, but here they manage to marry them to sticking song-structures and memorable melodies, with each and every one of the album’s track-titles doubling as a refrain that will remain stuck in your head for years to come. (Calling a song “Smoke ’em if You Got ’em” might seem a little cheeky, seeing as Parkway Drive already laid claim to that title pretty thoroughly, but hey, if they aren’t going to bother playing it anymore, then I say let the thrashers have it.)
Another thing that sets Summoning apart is its emphasised bottom end (ooer!). Rather than the punkier, Overkill-esque sound of Desecrator’s previous releases, Summoning leans more toward the heavier sound of bands like Testament and later Exodus. The shift is subtle, but it gives them a more contemporary and solid sound, that brings them into line with the likes of Harlott and In Malice’s Wake at the forefront of modern thrash metal, rather than seeming like more of a throwback the genre’s glory years. Perhaps it’s due to the addition of Hudson to the writing team, but the melodies also just seem bigger this time around, and the lead interaction between him and Strong is utterly electric. It’s a natural fit that brings out the best in both artists, while delivering Desecrator an album worthy of their legacy.
Unfortunately, all of this enthusiasm is rather stifled by the band’s sudden disbandment. Along with the announcement that the band’s Australian tour with Harlott and The Ascended in support of Summoning, originally slated for later this year, had been postponed to 2022 due to ongoing COVID outbreaks and metropolitan lock-downs, was the announcement that the band would be going on “indefinite hiatus” following the shows. In light of this announcement, I caught up with strong to help clarify the seemingly sudden decision and to find out a bit more about the process behind Summoning.
We spoke a few years back about the Australian thrash scene, how have things developed since then?
Seems to be lots of young bands jingling with the already established, so I’d say for a typically described “dead” genre things are going pretty well.
I think Summoning is your best album yet. Apart from the new line-up, was there anything different that helped shape things this time around?
We wrote as a group a lot more than on previous releases in that I relinquished a lot of the control over song development that had previously existed. It seemed to be the right time and group of writers to do that with and I think the result is better for it.
Harlott’s Andrew Hudson has joined the band since your last release. Did he contribute to the writing on the new album, and, if so, how did he balance writing material for the different bands?
The two bands are two very different ends of the genre so it wasn’t difficult to keep one apart from the other, if anything Andrew added a fresh perspective on what Desecrator parts were the ones that meant something to him as a long time fan and recent member of the band.
Your tour with Harlott and The Ascended been rescheduled to 2022, was this purely to do with COVID?
Yeah, being a Victorian band we have to work to the rules out in place currently so we’ve been forced to bump our dates back like many other bands at the moment. We’ve tried our best to schedule the run in a similar format to the original so hopefully people can still join us at the shows.
How are you negotiating the new COVID restrictions, and (more importantly) how are you ensuring the safety of your fans at these shows?
If the rules permit us to play the shows will go ahead, if it gets too hard and not viable to run them or if we don’t feel the space will be safe for band, crew and punters alike we’ll make that hard call.
How much of a role has COVID played in Desecrator’s sudden hiatus?
COVID has changed the total landscape of the international music industry so it would be silly to say it hasn’t effected every band in some way or another. Desecrator have fought and played shows in seated and reduced venues and are still pushing national touring at a time where most bands are filing it under “too hard”, so to blame covid for our decision wouldn’t be totally correct.
Are you able to elaborate more on the reasons behind the hiatus? What was the decision behind announcing an official “hiatus” rather than just taking a break after the tour or announcing a full break up?
As a group we’re still supportive of each other on an artistic and personal level so we felt “break up” had too many negative connotations, implying rifts and disharmony where there isn’t any. To touch on the subject we simply agree as a group that in the current climate, Summoning has said everything we currently have to say and have no wish to suffer the death of a wilting flower that stays in the sun too long.
It’s been ten years since you released your first album, Live ’til Death in 2011. Are there any particular shows or other highlights that stand out for you from the last decade of Desecrator?
There’s so many. From great Australian tours to amazing European shows, to struggling in the Russian cold, to bribing the police in Mexico, to busting an ankle mid tour in Brazil, to cancelling shows from death threats in Asia, to the heights of mega crowds in great venues as well as barely anyone in the corner of pubs in regional towns we’ve loved and lived it all.
Is there anything you would do differently?
Desecrator has met every opportunity with a yes and a figure out how attitude later and it’s done us well.
What are you looking forward to particularly on this next (possibly last) tour?
Prioritizing the good times and committing to one last celebration night after night of how amazing Australian heavy metal is.
Will you be working on any other projects during the hiatus?
Musically all members of Desecrator are far too creative to not get their fingers caught in a pie or two, that’s for sure.
How can fans best support the bands they love?
That’s simple: give a fuck. Giving a fuck can be buying merch, it can be talking to someone about that band, it can be sharing their stuff online. It doesn’t matter how; just give a fuck.
Is there anything else you want to add?
The response to Summoning has been fantastic so far so we as a group would like to thank all the listeners for hopping onboard, it’s been overwhelming and very validating so Thank you from Desecrator for all your support.
Further Lessons in Violence
Paradox – Heresy II: End of Legend
Apparently these guys have been around since 1986, with this being a sequel album to one they put out all the way back in 1990. I’d never heard of them before, but I’ll definitely be checking them out after hearing this. What I’ve heard of the original Heresy record sounds like pretty standard, melodic thrash. It’s successor, however, harks back to early Blind Guardian with its power thrash assault, bolstered by a prominent bottom end that kind of sounds like what Pantera might have ended up sounding like if they’d continued down more of the Power Metal (1988) and Cowboys from Hell (1990) path. Added to their arsenal is Obscura/Alkaloid/Eternity’s End guitarist Christian Münzner, who also played on Paradox‘s 2012 record Tales of the Weird and shreds up a storm throughout the record. Heresy II is rather long, clocking in at an hour and fifteen minutes over thirteen tracks but, given it’s been thirty years in the making, I won’t hold it against them.
Toxic Ruin – Nightmare Eclipse
Toxic Ruin might initially bring to mind the tech thrash of Vektor or early Revocation. Listening more closely to their song structures, however, I think the band they resemble the most is probably early Kreator. For all Toxic Ruin’s tech-death/thrash aesthetics, what really stands out about Nightmare Eclipse is the rawness and urgency of their riffing. Their solos abrade more than they glide, the songs being propelled more by the rattling rhythm section than they are the leads. The vocals are maybe a bit rough but, otherwise, Toxic Ruin is an outstanding sophomore effort that definitely marks out Toxic Ruin as one to watch out for in future.
Exxperior – Escalating Conflicts
This is a weird one. Exxperior play a brand of progressive thrash metal that sort of sounds like Devin Townsend fronting Anthrax, but if they were also Between the Buried and Me. … or maybe Nevermore? Exxperior is the warped brainchild of Psychaotic guitarist Tom Leibing who handles everything on this record (as he does with his other project Rodent (With Glasses)), with the exception of vocals, which come courtesy of BitchHammer frontman Falk Mittenentzwei. There’s also a ton of guest spots, including multiple members of fellow Teutonic thrashers Dust Bolt and Hidden Intent frontman Chris McEwan. There’s a lot going on here, and often the songs drag on for just that little bit longer than is warranted. On the whole, however, Escalating Conflicts is pretty remarkable, especially for what is essentially a one-man band, and unlike any other thrash album you’re likely to hear this year.
The Ascended – The Dark
Hey! Do you like God Forbid and early Trivium? Then get in here! The Dark is an outstanding throwback to mid-2000s metalcore and the NWOAHM that vastly improves upon their already promising debut Awaken Within (2018). This album won’t be winning over any of the style’s detractors, but fans of artists like Unearth, Killswitch Engage and As I Lay Dying will find plenty to like here. The band could do to bring a bit more of their own personality to the table, but as far as statements of intent go, The Dark is a pretty convincing one. (It also occurred to me after we ran our Anatomy Of on them, that The “Ascended” are probably named after Trivium’s Ascendancy huh?)
Alien Weaponry – Tangaroa
There’s a lot of hype behind Māori meallers Alien Weaonry. Yet, while their blend of groove metal and Māori folk elements is certainly intriguing, their premise continues to be the most interesting thing about them. Tangaroa is a big step up from 2018’s Tū, but it’s still a pretty one-dimensional and uninspiring affair. Root-era Sepultua remains the main touchstone, but there are also some interesting progressive elements start to creep into the band’s sound, during the second part of the record. The tone in this latter half is often reminiscent of Tool, as is the album’s very Aenima-esque album art, suggesting a conscious allusion by the band, along with the desire to push their sound into broader, more interesting territories.
I don’t know if there’s anyone more in the market for a Sepultura/Tool mash-up than myself, but Tangaroa, unfortunately, is far from the finished product. Too many of the songs take too long to get going, and also too long to end, so that the whole experience comes across as a largely meandering, patience testing slog. Lewis de Jong’s vocals also aren’t really up to snuff, with the somber, clean-sung track “Unforgiving” sounding uncomfortably close to that Wes Scantlin cover of “About a Girl”. The production is also oddly hollow, with none of the band’s instruments hitting nearly as hard as they should and really need to for this kind of music to work. There’s a ton of potential here and a bright future ahead of them if they can pull this sound into a more concise and better-presented record next time around, but Alien Weaponry are still a young band and it shows on this one.
Sepultura – SepulQuarta
Speaking of Sepultura! Like a lot of bands, the artists behind last year’s best thrash album turned to alternative, online sources in lieu of being ablt to tour during the 2020/21 COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than putting on a live stream, the Brazilians enlisted members of numerous high-profile metal acts to collaborate on a series of songs spanning their extensive back catalogue. Yet, while the project provided a fun novelty in video form, it doesn’t really work in a purely audio format. A lot of the project’s appeal was seeing Sepultura collaborate with all of these other artists, even if they were often just jamming together, but their contributions don’t really come through on record. What seem like great gets, in the form of Trivium’s Matt Heafy, Testament‘s Alex Skolnik, Anthrax‘s Scott Ian, Crypta‘s Fernanda Lira, Periphery‘s Mark Holcomb and Motörhead‘s Phil Campbell are all but indistinguishable without visual aid, while those that are apparent, such as Korzus vocalist Marcello Pompeu, Danko Jones don’t bring much in the form of interesting or original additions to the tracks they appear on. Opening the record with a collaboration with now-disgraced, ex-Megadeth bassist David Ellefson also doesn’t help, not that the band could have known before the record went to press.
The two big exceptions that make SepulQuarta at least somewhat worthwhile are guitarist Andreas Kisser and Angra guitarist Rafael Bittencourt’s beautiful, acoustic rendition of “Kaiowas” and, especially, Devin Townsend‘s fantastic collaboration on “Mask” from 2011’s Kairos. As with most things he touches, Townsend’s personality is palpable and his distinct vocals and guitar tones help elevate the song well beyond the original. It’s disappointing that more of teh contributing artists didn’t go in for more of Sepultura’s more-recent or obscure material. About half the album’s tracks are taken from the post-Max Cavalera era, but there’s nothing from the intriguing and underrated mid-period between 2003–17 besides Townsend’s contribution, and only a single cut from 2020’s acclaimed Quadra, in the form of “Fear, Pain, Chaos, Suffering” with Far From Alaska frontwoman Emmily Barreto who appeared on the original anyway, making it more or less redundant. SepulQuarta is essentially a glorified goof sessions, which are fine for what they are. As a product, however, it is severely underwhelming, especially considering its impressive line-up. Not to mention the variety and ambition shown elsewhere this quarter…
Various Artists – The Metallica Blacklist
Metallica‘s Black Album (1991) is not only the the most popular and commercially successful (thrash) metal album of all time, but the degree and sheer expanse of its influence simply dwarfs whatever the next closest competitor is (probably their own Master of Puppets (1986)). No other metal band, not even Black Sabbath can claim to have influenced and inspired as many artists across, as many different genres, in as many different countries as Metallica. The Metallica Blacklist, a four-disc, fifty-three song covers collection, celebrating the thirty-year anniversary of The Black Album is a testament to that influence. Yet, as the album also shows, the records influence has also been somewhat limited, with twelve different artists choosing to cover brilliant but non-indicative ballad “Nothing Else Matters”, while many of the album’s deeper cuts not getting the recognition they deserve. Moreover, many of the repeated covers see artists taking their chosen songs in similar directions or so close to the original as to hardly justify their inclusion.
The most successful covers are often those that take their source material in a new direction. Immediate stand-outs include Biffy Clyro‘s spacey, alt-prog take on “Holier Than Though,” which proves a surprisingly popular pick among the contributing artists, although only the perplexingly popular British rockers seem to be able to do anything really interesting with it. Fellow Englishmen Idles have equal success transforming “The God That Failed” into a scrappy post-punk number and Rina Sawayama sounds utterly glorious wailing atop her industrialized remix of “Enter Sandman”. There’s a lot of success to be be had among the Blacklist‘s many countrified renditions as well. Chris Stapleton does a fantastic job of turning “Nothing Else Matters” into a road-worn, outback anthem, as does Jon Pardi whose ominous orchestration taps into the original menace of “Wherever I May Roam”. Ex-Drive-By Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell upbeat take on “Sad but True” is equally compelling, as is South Korean rock band YB‘s similarly rollicking rendition, which somehow winds up sounding more like “Fuel.” The under-appreciated “Through the Never” suits rising Mongolian folk metallers The HU surprisingly well and hardcore supergroup OFF! also do a great job fitting “Holier Than Though” to a traditional chaotic hardcore template. The best track of the whole collection, however, is undoubtedly Kamasi Washington‘s jazzed out take on “My Friend of Misery.” Some might say Washington gets too far away from the original, but the result more than justifies the means.
Other experiments are less successful. French DJ SebastiAn‘s funky, Prince-style remix of “Don’t Tread on Me” is cool, but it sounds more like a YouTube mash-up than a proper remix and really looses it when it suddenly transitions into a sullen orchestral version of “Nothing Else Matters, even if the final, fat elctro-drop is pretty sweet. The Mexican Institute of Sound‘s party-dub remix of “Sad But true” is also surprisingly effective, albeit somewhat spoiled by James Hetfield’s lingering vocal track which probably should have been cut altogether. Neither Colombian rapper J Balvin nor The Flatbush Zombies‘ hip hop takes on “Wherever I May Roam” and “The Unforgiven” really take, both sounding far more dated than their tricenarian source material. Yet even these less-successful experiments remain far more interesting than the dearth of more straight-forward covers.
It’s shocking how many of the Blacklist‘s fifty-three artists chose to play it so straight. The best of the basic covers are probably Royal Blood and Volbeat who bring enough of their distinct personalities to “Sad But True” and “Don’t Tread on Me” to make the songs their own without really changing anything about their composition and I can certainly see these versions going off in a live contexts. The same can be said of Ghost‘s version of “Enter Sandman”, which is otherwise pretty uninspired, especially when folk group Goodnight, Texas – the only artists to tackle “Of Wolf and Man” – do a far better and more interesting impersonation of Ghost covering Metallica than the band themselves. Neither Corey Taylor nor Pup‘s take on “Holier than Thou” are particularly essential, but if you ever wanted to hear either artist covering that song then that’s definitely what you get. Roxette‘s Per Gessle does a decent enough job bringing his particular tonality to “Nothing Else Matters”, with the help of Swedish singer Helena Josefsson, as does Miley Cyrus, with the help of Elton John (who really just needs to go away at this point) and current Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Andrew Watt, whose blistering cut off the song’s iconic solo earns it a spot among the Blacklist‘s better offerings, even if lesser-known country-pop starlet Micky Guyton ultimately delivers the better vocal performance. None of these versions are in anyway essential, yet none of them are completely redundant in the way only Mac DeMarco, Weezer and White Reaper‘s stale takes on “Enter Sandman” and “Sad But True” are.
Given just how much music the Blacklist offers, it’s surprising how few of its covers truly shit the bed. The collection is often at its worst when at its most affected. I’ve never got the hype around either artist, but both St. Vincent and Phoebe Bridgers come across like they’re trying too hard, the former falling well short of elude the sense of sultry coolness she seems to be going for on her Nine Inch Nails-ified version of “Sad But True”, while Bridgers’ supposedly soulful take on “Nothing Else Matters” seems destined to play across the credits of the next Black Widow film, carrying with it all the substance that implies. The same might be said of Moses Sumney and Cage The Elephant overly affected versions of “The Unforgiven”, although neither are as grating as My Morning Jacket‘s happy-go-lucky take on “Nothing Else Matters”. I also don’t know who Sam Fender is, but I’m not sure anyone needed an agonisingly earnest, Paul McCartney-style version of “Sad But True”. None of the performances on these tracks can be faulted, per se, although the same can’t be said for a handful of the album’s offerings.
Although it happens fr less often than you might expect, when the Blacklist is bad, it’s bad. Whatever Portugal. The Man are trying to do with “Don’t Tread on Me” (already one of The Black Album‘s weaker offerings) just doesn’t work, nor does Chase and Status‘s dub/grime remix of “Wherever I May Roam”, although it’s light years ahead of the The Neptunes‘s seemingly half-finished take on the song, which may have worked as the basis for a backing track, but is probably the single worst track on the Blacklist. The only other real contender is ex-Hootie and the Blowfish mainman turned unlikely country superstar Darius Rucker‘s uninspired take on “Nothing Else Matters”, which is only saved by Irish singer Dermot Kennedy and Depeche Mode singer Dave Gahan delivering equally dull and sacharine versions of the same song. Shoutout to Indian singer Vishal Dadlani, as well, who employs a truly baffling yarl on his buttrockified version of “The Unforgiven”.
Overall, the Blacklist is surprisingly consistent with some truly striking standouts. I don’t think it made quite the cultural splash Metallica or their fans were expecting, although it is far from the complete disaster it could have been. Nevertheless, one glaring question remains: where is all the metal? Of the collection’s 53 tracks, only four (Ghost, Corey Taylor, The Hu and Volbeat, maybe YB and White Reaper as well) would usually be considered metal bands, with only a handful of others (OFF!, Pup, Weezer, Biffy Clyro, Royal Blood and Idles, arguably Rina Sawayama and St. Vincent as well) even having anything to really do with “alternative” music altogether. That’s not to say that I want a collection full of purely metalic covers – lord knows there’s plenty out there already. The diversity of the Blacklist is certainly one of its strengths. However, it’s hardly as diverse as it claims to be, nor does the idea that metal acts would make it any less commercially appealing really hold any water when the whole point of the collection is ostensibly to celebrate how much people liked all of these heavy/thrash metal songs in the first place! Surely some more extreme acts could have been subbed in instead of having fourteen “different” sad-piano/country versions of “Nothing Else Matters” and “The Unforgiven” laid back to back? The reach of The Black Album’s inspiration is truly staggering, but it’s also important not to forget where it came from.
See you next round to talk about all of the big releases at the top. Also, this: