Larry rounds up all the decent (and some not-so-decent) thrash releases for the headbang-happy year of 2017.
They came from the Wild Lands…
A little over a year since their last piece of audio warfare, Only Filth Will Prevail, Whipstriker return with album number four, the aptly titled Merciless Artillery. Die hard fans should immediately notice the freshly updated logo, courtesy of Rok, the vocalist of legendary Aussie band Sadistik Execution, and, just like their previous album, Rok also handled the cover artwork. A quick glance should tell everything needed to know about the music: a tank rolling over strewn skulls; cannons firing; a spiked, Mad Max looking mercenary marching onward; and a burning landscape choking the sky with smoke. If you still couldn’t guess, or are just completely fucking clueless, Merciless Artillery brings a blackened speed metal base, brimming with wild thrashing and slathering, filthy metalpunk around the edges.
The logo isn’t the only thing that’s changed, though, with longtime session/live drummer Hugo Golon taking over on guitars, as well. This leaves band founder and resident wild man Victor to focus on bass and vocals. While the music on Merciless Artillery isn’t a far cry from what the band has been pushing since forming in 2008, Hugo’s riffing brings Whipstriker’s sound onto a slightly different level. The filthy, gutter drenched, punk-tinged speed metal is still on full display, but Hugo’s riffing style delivers a more refined and blackened approach that often borders on the blackened thrash of Aura Noir or Nifelheim. The razor sharp tremolo riffing on the title track or the militant pummeling at the beginning of “Soldier of Sodom” show that this isn’t just your everyday Motö-rocking speed metal; this stuff is fucking heavy and hard as iron. Let’s not forget the handful of speed metal infused leads, that bring a fair amount of class to an otherwise filth ridden affair. Hugo’s drumming should also be highlighted, as his frenetic d-beat rhythms and double kicks constantly add fuel to the fire, increasing the intensity of an already intense album. Victor’s bass emulates the loud and driving approach utilized by the likes of Lemmy, while his throaty, growled shouts sound their most vicious.
Equal parts Motörhead, Hellhammer, Sodom, and Venom, Whipstriker’s latest offering should certainly please any fan of the band’s back catalog. The songs are fueled with venom and bring a frenzied and unrelenting pace from start to finish. Raging speed metal mayhem with frequent dips into black/thrash is the order of the day. While some moments sound heavily influenced by Panzerfaust-era Darkthrone, with punk-ish yet crushing riffs, and some progressions could have been long lost relics from the classic Hellhammer demo, Satanic Rites, with it’s bass heavy approach and steamrolling sensibility, most of Merciless Artillery stokes the fires of old school blackened speed metal. It’s not revolutionary (it isn’t meant to be), but, goddamn, Whipstriker does this sound better than any other band out there right now.
While there’s nothing tame about Whipstriker’s back catalog, Merciless Artillery is the band’s hardest hitting and most feral release to date. Though this is the band’s first full length release for the notorious Hells Headbangers Records, this album could be considered the flagship for the label, as it embodies everything that HHR bands usually bring to the table; raging old school metal with a penchant for filth, rage, and speed. While there are any number of bands using that formula, no one seems to be able to tap into the same vein that Victor has hit with Whipstriker. This is authentic blackened speed metal made for cruising the back alleys after midnight. A much revered Motörhead adage comes to mind when listening to Merciless Artillery, “Everything louder than everyone else!” Whipstriker adds to that mantra, with everything louder, faster, and filthier than everyone else; straight from the Wild Lands.
Ascending the cosmic stairway yet again.
With its rich and growing history, metal has gone from being a darker offspring of primitive hard rock music into a veritable spectrum of possibilities. Despite this large and growing diversity, there are some very clear breakpoints where one sub-genre will given way to another, often times being defined by those bands that find themselves adopting some hybrid between one subset and the next or pioneering a new one altogether by working with and exaggerating existing ones. Yet perhaps the most interesting border is the one that separates metal itself from all the other kinds of music floating around out there, and with it a crop of bands that seem to stretch the very definition of metal to the furthest extent possible, and it is here where the Norwegian duo known as Keldian resides, in that ultra-melodic zone where power metal ends and keyboard rich smoothness of 80s New Wave begins. Though they’ve existed under various names since the turn of the millennium and are a likely candidate for the original revivalist crowd, they’ve only been at the studio making a direct impact on things for about 10 years, and in that time they’ve shown very little interest in the stylistic flux that has enveloped power metal since the early 2000s.
True to form, this band’s fourth outing Darkness And Light sees a continuation of the same heavily atmospheric, Stratovarius-inspired mixture of power metal and rock fanfare that has been their staple since Heaven’s Gate, albeit with the massive production sound and pacing that scored them an unknown classic in Outbound a few years back. Though the album art might suggest a lyrical departure to a less Sci-Fi realm, there is about as many odes to sailing through nebula on the path new worlds as ever, coupled with a few surprisingly relevant subjects involving our beloved planet Earth at present. There is a greater tendency towards a moderate pacing of things here relative to Outbound and Journey Of Souls in favor of where this band kicked off things in 2007, but most of the stylistic trappings that have typified this band’s collective sound over the past decade are on display here in some capacity, distilled into a slightly more concise collection of eight meticulously crafted songs that are so infectiously catchy and equally yoked that scarcely anyone would be tempted to hit the skip button, and most may find themselves singing along by the second refrain.
As previously stated, things are a bit more mid-paced relative to the previous two albums, just to the point of being noticeable. Having said that, there are two very clear nods to the speed metal tendencies of Journey Of Souls to be found in “Life And Death Under Strange New Suns” and “Broadside?”, the latter managing to work in an easy going piano line despite cooking a pace comparable to something off Mob Rules’ Hollowed Be Thy Name, while the former hits the nostalgia button for any followers of this band who really dug the high flying exploits of “Sundancer” off the debut album. For the most part, these songs tend to be driven by the speed of the drum work and the bombastic presence of the keyboards, but occasionally a well calculated guitar solo rears its head like the one that adorns the first aforementioned song that shows some pretty heavy similarities to something Timo Tolkki contributed to 90s Stratovarius. But even more so than all of these elements, these songs are driven into the stratosphere by Christer Andresen’s soaring, squeaky clean tenor, yet again answering that age old question of what Timo Koltipelto would sound like he he sought to emulate Sting rather than Michael Kiske.
Regardless of a lack of overt speed driving things, this album also reinforces a truism that was commonplace at the time that their first album was released in the late 2000s, which is that ingenuity can drive power metal about as effectively as a blistering speed metal beat. Among the most auspicious examples of mixing things up a bit are longer running numbers like “Crown Of Starlight” and “Change The World” that wheel through various stages of slower and upper mid-paced grooves with highly memorable thematic material cycling through the vocals and instrumentation. These are the sorts of songs that command the same sort of sing-along enthusiasm as if the chorus section were the entire song, despite transitioning through 4 distinct vocal sections, let alone the instrumental breaks. Then there is the massive atmospheric romp through the cosmos “I’m The Last Of Us”, which is something of an unofficial sequel to the same atmospheric progression of ideas that was “The Silfen Paths” off of Outbound and ushers in a compelling power metal answer to Pink Floyd. But the absolute coup de grace moment of this album is “Blood Red Dawn”, which is arguably the least complex offering on here, but manages to turn a basic set of old school heavy metal riffs, a heavy keyboard backdrop and a few solid hooks into an unforgettable ode to political commentary and conspiracy theory.
Perhaps one of the most perplexing mysteries of power metal is embodied in Keldian’s status as one of the best kept secrets of the sub-genre. By all standards, this band and all of its albums have all of the right elements to supplant all of the recycled crap that tends to populate rock radio and bring some much needed depth and lyrical credibility to said medium. Granted, their approach to songwriting is a bit ambitious and might prove to fly clear over the heads of many trustees of archaic radio DJ repertoire like a star cruiser over John Cyriis’ head, despite utilizing similarly consonant melodic hooks. It’s probably just the plight for any band that straddles the fences between two very distant worlds to be accepted by neither side to any great extent, but like the brief flash of brilliance that was Fox’s Firefly series, it is one that has gathered and will likely continue to gather a devoted cult following, and it is also one that is thankfully free from the tyrannical decrees of mainstream viewers and television networks determining whether it will have a future. Wayward power metal dreamers and Sci-Fi junkies alike, lend the pilot and co-pilot of the USS Keldian your ears to this unknown classic so it will not be the last.
Great news for NWOBHM enthusiasts
Once upon a time, Trespass were one of the strongest contenders in then-flourishing NWOBHM, with a handful of successful singles, high-profile compilation appearances and record labels regularly beating a path to the band’s door. They could (and arguably should) have made it into premier league status, but that wasn’t to be the case, and history awarded them with only a humble entry on the “cult band status” file for the time being.
Fortunately, old stalwart Mark Sutcliffe (G/V) never totally lost the will to continue, and general interest was more than enough to persuade him to get his beloved venture off the ground once more. Now helped by Joe Fawcett (G), Jason Roberts (D) and Danny Biggin (B), he gave himself the task to write and record an album to fulfill some of the bright promises left behind.
Though it’s not exactly the comeback album of Trespass (there’s also a 2015’s self-titled CD), “Footprints in the Rock” is their first recording to feature only brand-new material in roughly 25 years, so it’s surely a landmark in the group’s career. And when you consider that 1991’s “Head” was a radical departure from the band’s trademark sound, and also that all other full-length releases were compilations, it’s not at all unreasonable to argue that this 2018 release is something of a spiritual debut for the lads, nearly 40 years into their career. And a pretty nice one, if you ask me.
Don’t go for this one expecting any sort of major reinvention: it’s way more of a accomplished case of soul-searching, a band that managed to recapture the spirit of the early 1980’s heavy music without sounding too self-referential or contrived. The album kicks off with a foolproof 4/4 drum pattern before “Momentum” launches with heavy-rocking riffing, nice vocal lines and a straight-to-the-point approach that really captures the listener’s attention almost immediately. I had a hard time trying to figure out just how they allowed such a thin and nondescript sound on the guitar solo though – perhaps a mistake on the mixing board or something? Fortunately, all other guitar appearances have a much lively sound, so it’s pretty easy to quickly forget this initial bad impression.
Things never get too fast around here, as Trespass were always more inclined to beefy, solid riffing rather than indulging on breakneck speed. Which is not to say there’s not a few moments of faster-flowing energy, you know, as in the excellent “Mighty Love” (strong Thin Lizzy influences here) and “Prometheus” (truly nice instrumental section, and the main riff also deserves a mention). The guitar work is never overdone by the way, but never runs out of nice touches either, as tunes like “Beowulf and Grendel” (mostly very chuggy, but with careful, melodic embellishments in places) and the mellow intro to the otherwise groovy and pounding “The Green Men” are more than adequate to justify. Bass and drums offer the necessary backbone for the guitars to shine, and Mark Sutcliffe’s voice works perfectly well into the band’s scheme of things: a bit too raspy in places, mostly unpolished for sure, but with a no nonsense attitude that is totally attuned to Trespass’ penchant to keep things rough-and-ready most of the time.
My personal favorites, apart from the aforementioned “Mighty Love”, would be “Dragons in the Mist”, full of interesting dynamics and a more complex, yet very catchy chorus; the beautiful epic ballad “Little Star”; and most of all the impressive title track, perhaps one of the finest tunes Trespass ever wrote, and I mean it. But it’s a very solid album with hardly any filler in sight, which is to say something when you consider that they’re dealing with elements that were exhaustively used by many other bands, countless times before.
It’s easy to slip into self-parody when innovation is not your main goal, but Mark Sutcliffe and his cohorts surely did the trick and kept things sharp and entertaining throughout this album. Trespass’ definitive resurgence doesn’t achieve quite the same level of excellence than, say, Satan or Hell, but “Footprints in the Rock” is still great news for all those who save a fond place for NWOBHM in their metal hearts. If you fit the description, just stop reading and go get it straight away.
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?
Larry zealously and over-enthusiastically ranks the British power metallers’ discography.
The last of three articles on the awesome Mammothfest in Brighton – Day One and Two reviews already published on 21 October.
Josh cuts to the quick of Sweden’s masters of melodic death.