Welcome to Secret Steel, the fifth chapter, “Black Metal 1: An Unholy Union”
The Spaniards Take it All
A change in vocalist can make a big difference—for better or worse. Some changes in vocalist can take a band to new heights—think of Dream Theater with Charlie Dominici vs. Dream Theater with James Labrie. Other vocalist changes can take a band down a sad and lonely road—think Black Sabbath replacing Dio with Ian Gillan (or any other vocalist that isn’t him or Ozzy…). Other times, a replacement vocalist can be more of a lateral move. The best example of this (though some may disagree) is Iron Maiden’s switch from Di’Anno to Dickinson. You can argue until you’re blue in the face over which one is better, but it’s pretty undeniable that both produced fantastic recordings with Maiden.
For their third album, Hitten was faced with this problem—original vocalist Aitor Navarro’s tenure with the band ended after their 2016 album State of Shock. He fit in with the band very well, lending the band a gruffness and muscular edge—not dissimilar to what Di’Anno brought to Maiden. So with their 2018 record, and their replacement vocalist, Hitten had the opportunity to take their sound into the stratosphere or fall flat on their faces.
And just like Maiden, thankfully, they managed the latter.
Where Navarro was muscular, Alex Panza is majestic. He has a beautiful, screaming, high register voice that perfectly suits the change in sound that Hitten pull off on this album. Where before, Hitten was more concerned with pulling off the most blue collar, muscular 80’s heavy metal sound they could, they have now taken significant influence from more melodic heavy metal bands like Dio and Ozzy Osbourne’s solo groups and even some USPM sounding speed influence to become an even more compelling beast than they were before. The album brings to mind the cheesy side of the 80’s in a tasteful way—entertaining, high energy, towering choruses, makes you want to chug a beer and floor your Camaro down the freeway—that kind of stuff. There are also wonderful gang vocals in both the thrashier sense and the “echo the lead singer with effects soaked gang vocals” in the cheesefest 80’s way. Plus, there’s a song called “In the Heat of the Night.” Can you get much more 80’s than that? You can practically see these guys back to back in jean jackets twin soloing to their hearts’ content. These are songs marinated for 13 hours in adrenaline and testosterone to produce a deliciously high octane set that may have you checking your pulse to make sure you’re not having a heart attack.
The biggest focus these guys have on this album is writing fantastic and memorable songs. Are there over the top guitar solos? Yes. Is the drumming constantly pounding away like a jackhammer? Also yes. Could Alex Panza be the bastard child of a banshee and a songbird? Potentially. But all of these facets are in the service of catchy as all hell songs absolutely stacked to the brim with hooks. So many hooks you could start a commercial fishing business. WHO KNOWS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT? (I’m really sorry, I couldn’t help myself.) The biggest change here is that Alex Panza (I’m assuming) writes some supremely catchy and beautiful vocal melodies. Panza simply has a better voice and more skill as a singer, meaning he can pull off things that Navarro never could. And when he does, it is mesmerizing. For example, in the first chorus of “Twist of Fate,” when he sings the last word of the title in the first chorus (faaaaaaaaaaaaaate) surrounded by twin lead guitars. Or his “can you feel it, can you hear it? The boys are playing loud!” in rocking out the city that is a sure-fire pump-up. In general throughout the album, there are myriad times where a vocal melody is supremely affecting and worms its way into your psyche (the pre-chorus and chorus of Flight to Freedom, the pre-chorus of “In the Heat of the Night,” the chorus of “Take it all”).
With Panza front and center, Johnny Lorca and Dani write the best riffs and melodies of Hitten’s tenure. It seems that they feel they have the freedom to branch out from their extremely muscular approach and they take full advantage of it, incorporating amazing melodic riffs throughout the album and plenty of twin guitar leads. Their riff structure has changed from a more standard heavy/speed template to one that sounds more beholden to USPM bands of the 80s—and indeed has a lot in common with modern practitioners of this sound. The main riffs of both “Take if All” and “Flight to Freedom” sound like they could be on an Eternal Champion or Sumerlands album. Every song has an excellent main riff, and it is not uncommon for each song to have an even more righteous riff during the bridge/solo/interlude section (see the riff after the second chorus of “Flight to Freedom”—holy shit). The melodic interludes in each song are amazing and feature some of the best guitar playing I’ve heard in years. In the middle of the album, Hitten even decides to do their best 80’s thrash impression on the lovely and haunting interlude “Svccvbvs” and the subsequent track “Evil Within.” “Svccvbvs” sounds like it could have been an intro to a Megadeth song circa 1986 and “Evil Within” features an interlude ripped straight from “Master of Puppets.” The guys follow this up with a “Victim of Changes”-esque section where Panza screams out some truly hair-raising melodies. Throughout the album, there is a larger sense of adventure in all performances—vocals, guitars, drums, and bass. The guys branch out and incorporate far more influences than before, and the album is so much stronger for that.
I regularly find each and every song on this album stuck in my head at various times throughout my day. Every song has some riff, vocal melody, or combination thereof that is just impossible to ignore. And every time they enter my head, I have to put the album back on because it is that good. I haven’t heard any heavy metal in the year 2018 that comes close to what Hitten have achieved here. Every song on the album is killer in its own way. These songs are unique, memorable, filled with catchy hooks, and—most importantly—there are absurd riffs in every song. I can’t imagine anyone is going to release a heavy metal record that bests this beast in 2018. So, it seems Hitten may have entered their Dickinson period. Except in their case, rather than a lateral move, this is a definite step-up, and a crowning achievement in modern heavy metal.
Not the GOAT ‘Goat–Still Good ‘Goat.
There are certain old standbys that everyone has—not just in music, but in all areas of life. Everyone has that restaurant that, even though it may have lost a little of its luster over the years, always provides a solid meal. Or that certain director who may no longer be producing masterpieces, but continues to make enjoyable movies that you can’t help but watch. For me, Archgoat has become one of these old standbys. They were one of the earliest bands to play War metal, styled after Canadian legends Blasphemy. They have created undeniable classics like Angelcunt and The Whore of Bethlehem. And nobody is taking those away from me. But at this point, Archgoat has become old reliable for me—a dog who I know will always be around for a nice pat on the head—or maybe a goat who I know is always around for a nice head-butt to the face—even if that headbutt has lost a little of its oomph.
Archgoat has always been one of the most accessible bands playing in the War metal style. Compared to tamer styles of music, of course Archgoat is extremely abrasive. But compared to other bands like Blasphemy, Revenge, Proclamation, and Beherit, Archgoat is like the perfect distillation of “poppy” war metal. Their production is not so opaque that the riffs are obscured. The vocals are low grunts but not abrasive to the ear. The riffs are not so buried that they are overwhelming, and they’re simple but forceful construction always makes them memorable. Overall, Archgoat has always been a band who knows exactly who they want to be and have stuck with it from the start. At this point, Archgoat may have gotten the point of diminishing returns—albeit still pretty satisfying ones.
The Luciferian Crown finds Archgoat in mid-paced groove mode like on their last full length The Apocalyptic Triumphator except to a point of almost extremity in some cases. E.g., the intro of “Lucifer’s Temple” is so groovy I’m almost uncomfortable with it. It’s not to the point where I expect Phil Anselmo to start singing over it, but the fact that that thought has entered my head makes me feel icky. Other songs like “The Darkness Has Returned” stick closer to a Bolt Thrower style groove which is a better sweet spot for Archgoat. A further problem is that on tracks where Archgoat maintains a slow groove for the whole song, they get kind of grating and dare I say boring by the end. I definitely find the speedier numbers like “Star of Darkness” and “The Darkness…” to be more compelling listens overall than drawn out groove-fests like “The Obsidian Flame” or “Lucifer’s Temple.” Though some of the slower songs bore me, when Archgoat are at their bleating best, they are still a force to be reckoned with. Like on the massive “Sorcery and Doom,” which shifts between hellacious blast beats and ignorant sledgehammer riffs that beat you into a daze by the end of it; or the brief rager “Messiah of Pigs” which is like a shot of pure hellfire.
Everyone is still very solid instrumentally. The riffs, while of uneven quality, are all at least passable, and the guitar tone is still quite pleasant. The drumming has a gigantic sound, and though it can feel bogged down in blasts at times, there is enough variety to keep it interesting. Archgoat’s vocals have been getting lower in quality in my opinion with each subsequent album. Rather than the completely lifeless black hole of a vocal performance (in a good way) that we got on Whore of Bethlehem, the vocals have moved into a more gurgling roar. They’re not bad or anything, I just long for the days of the void.
Whore of Bethlehem was like a bonfire that your crazy uncle built. He put it too close to your house and some trees, he sprayed way too much lighter fluid into it, and those branches he’s using as kindling are so dry you’re positive the forest rangers have set the fire risk at “High” today. It is a thrilling and terrifying experience that feels like it could take your life at any moment. The Luciferian Crown is kind of like if that bonfire burned down to the coals. It’s not going to scorch you and you feel no sense of urgency or terror. But just because there’s no fear for your life involved, that doesn’t mean you’re not going to enjoy yourself. Remember: once the fire burns down to its coals, that’s the best time to toast your marshmallows. So what I’m saying is, grab your S’mores stick, sit around the campfire with me, and, as long as you’re not expecting a blaze you can post on YouTube, you’re going to have a good time.
A Revelation Wreathed In Flames.
The eagle has largely been regarded as a symbol of freedom and triumph, but going on 20 years now that truism has been bucked by one of the better known German speed metal authorities to rise out of the millennial power metal revival, showcasing it along similar lines to that of crows and ravens in Nordic lore. While depictions of the famed bird of prey has varied from its traditional incarnation to varying robotic/cybernetic modifications, it has been more the exception than the rule for Primal Fear to depict their mascot as the outright agent of destruction rather than a witness of its occurrence. Such is the disposition of their winged symbol, wreathed in flames like a mechanical phoenix, raining down a storm of meteors and flames upon the hapless metropolis with a black moon in the distance, like an ominous eye leering at the destruction below. Such elaborate visuals, especially when compared with the more mundane one that adorned their previous albumRulebreaker, would suggest a fairly different approach is taking place within the bindings of Apocalypse, Primal Fear’s 12th studio LP, though the level of musical departure under consideration is not quite as drastic as one might suspect.
Being a band with a fairly clear cut formula that doesn’t really veer to far from the standards set by recent metal classics such as Judas Priest’s Painkiller, U.D.O.’s Timebomb, and a number of classic offerings of the late 80s and early 90s out of the likes of Running Wild, Grave Digger and Anthem, there is a fair degree of predictability involved in any Primal Fear offerings. Variation is often found in the periphery, with the biggest variable being the level of impact upon the songwriting by guitarist/keyboardist Magnus Karlsson, who’s background puts him more in the AOR-leaning power/heavy metal camp and made him something of an unlikely recruit about 10 years prior when the band moved from Nuclear Blast to Frontiers Records. His was the handiwork that offered up some of the astoundingly massive epic compositions on previous outings such as “We Walk Without Fear” and “One Night In December”, to speak nothing for the more cinematic character that this band’s output as a whole took on when he replaced Stefan Leibing and guest orchestration man Matthias Ulmer (who’s reputation in said department in the metal world is beyond repute) as the guy putting forth the symphonic and atmospheric detailing.
Suffice it to say, this album treads similar territory to its two predecessors from a sonic perspective, although the songwriting and structure at play turns back the clock a bit to when 16.6 (Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead) introduced the world to the Karlsson era of Primal Fear. The stage is set by a highly cinematic and massive instrumental prelude in the lead off title track “Apocalypse” that does an effective job at painting musically what the album art itself depicts, resembling recent film score work by Hans Zimmer (a common muse for instrumental preludes on power metal albums of late) with a dash of singing guitar splendor somewhat reminiscent of Queen. The clock gets wound back even further to the Nuclear Blast days with the onset of “New Rise”, arguably one of the fastest and most intense speed metal anthems to come out of this band’s arsenal, straddling the divide between the band’s current sound and the glory days of Nuclear Fire. Slightly less explosive yet compelling nods to the chunky yet speedy sound of Painkiller are found in “Blood Sweat & Fear”, “The Ritual” and the album’s proper closer “Cannonball”, pummeling the ears with high-impact riffs, soaring shred-happy solos and glass-shattering banshee wails.
First impressions, though quite captivating, also prove to be a bit deceiving in this album’s case, as the overall bulk of this album takes a more measured and methodical approach that’s a bit more along the lines of Accept’s mid-paced fair. Punchy grooves such as those that dominate “Hail To The Fear”, “Hounds Of Justice” and “King Of Madness” enjoy a larger share of time in the nuclear sunlight that most of this band’s back catalog (save maybe New Religion) and represent the majority of the teaser singles that promoted this album, while the bonus material that most core fans of this band will enjoy via the limited edition release of this album in “Fight Against All Evil” and “Into The Fire” have more in common with iconic mid-80s anthems like the sort vocalist Ralf Scheepers delivered with his original band Tyran Pace. This sort of AOR tendency to some of the slower material is likewise mirrored in the album’s token ballad “Supernova”, which mirrors the Dream Theater influences heard on the previous album’s ballad “The Sky Is Burning” but with a more subdued tone, while the album’s lone longer-winded epic “Eye Of The Storm” shows some similarities to “We Walk Without Fear”, but dials down the dramatic factor and sort of coasts along in a less dynamic yet still largely captivating fashion.
There was little place to go other than down following the two masterworks that preceded this album, but thankfully this is more along the lines of a slight decline rather than a sudden flop into mediocrity. Apocalypse isn’t so much an exercise in phoning it in, so much as it is an album that focuses a bit less on the fringes and builds up its base. In this present age of short attention spans and instant gratification via internet streaming, moderate length songs that play it a bit safer, this is the sort of album that may prove to become a bit more common in the coming years, still possessing a somewhat conceptual structure but also catering a bit more to single-obsessed audiences. Most of the same people are still involved, including recently recruited studio-engineer and producer Jacob Hansen (who provided the mixing expertise on the last two albums, among those of countless other European bands), who largely serves up the same slab of colossal sounding brilliance, save maybe a less overt keyboard presence. The overall package comes up a little bit shorter on moments of astounding brilliance, but any fan of this band will be hard pressed to find any flaws.
Larry breaks down each album by the German industrial goliaths to decide which one sits on top.
Interview with Mikko Aspa of Clandestine Blaze
Conducted by Colonel Para Bellum of Blackdeath.
Larry rounds up all the decent (and some not-so-decent) thrash releases for the headbang-happy year of 2017.
This was a banner year for death metal by any measure.
Here are some of our favorite death metal releases from 2017.
The diverse spectrum that encompasses metal music’s many sub-genres could be likened to various mythical races united under two opposing banners, staring each other down as they make ready to charge and turn the field red with the other’s blood. From one year to the next, the advantage may tip from one side to the other, but in the grand scheme of their eternal conflict, the forces of light and darkness have tended to be equally matched. 2017 saw the forces of melody and order take the advantage in the eyes of the reclusive bard that tells this end of the year tale, though naturally his is not the final word on such things, and other codices in the grand archives of metallic exploits deserve your consideration. Still, these are the 50 acts of heroism that defined the year, because too much has occurred to settle for a mere 30.
2017 has proven to offer up the tightest race we have seen in a long time in the quest for the gold! So without any further ado, here is the creme de la creme of the year!
December’s still a month, right?