Dagon - Back to the Sea - (7.5/10)
Published on May 6, 2018
There should be more metal bands singing about the ocean, not only those like Running Wild and Alestorm who have adapted a kind of jaunty pirate jig into their melodies and perform without much regard for the sea itself. For, really, the ocean is a terrible companion and sailing is an occupation fraught with dangerous difficulties and strange desires, which means that neither of those power/heavy metal bands can hope to represent the fullness of their subject matter. That’s where Dagon comes in. Not that this Michigan crew are the heaviest prospect of their kind, but the semi-extreme mix of melodic death metal and chunky metalcore works very convincingly at displaying to the listener the churning waves of a storm, the thrill of running at full sail, and even the longing to return to watery vistas that informs the lyrics of the title track.
Thematically, Back to the Sea covers the same kind of territory as Dagon’s nautical predecessors, telling tales of mutinies, islands, and the terrors from below, all vociferated in the harsh vocals of bassist Randall Ladiski. The roars and growls and occasional higher-pitched yowls do not break the character of the ocean as a turbulent and masculine environment, while the guitars are permitted to engage in both upfront heavy riffing and more peaceable melodies that show the varied moods of the sea. What seems impressive about Ladiski’s performance is that – somewhat like Johan Hegg of Amon Amarth, to whom his voice can be compared – vocal hooks stand out on nearly every song, particularly on the emphasized chorus of “Walk the Plank” and some of the faster material like “The Captain’s Creed”. Only on one occasion are the band permitted to have cheesy fun, which is during “Ocean Metal II” (the first installment of which appeared on previous album Terraphobic a whole nine years ago!), when drummer Jordan Batterbee shows up with a high-pitched hook that will instantly remind fans of Cam Pipes, vocalist for the now-defunct 3 Inches of Blood.
The guitars prove catchy too, showering riffage around the pacey likes of “A Feast of Flesh for Silent Death” and the Kalmah-esque “Blood for Gold” (also a sequel, this time to “The Triton’s Daughter” from the Vindication EP in 2011, which was the band’s most recent release before this one). The melodies are key to making the heavy percussion and harsh vocals palatable throughout the album, since they are used either as the introduction to longer songs like “The Drifting Isle” and epic closer “Erased by Fathoms” or as movements in their own right, elevating “The Battle of Lepanto” to a nostalgic pitch and forming the backbone for the chorus of “Spirit on the Water”. The solos are not exceptional for the genre, though new guitarist Kris Finison fits in well with old hand Chris Sharrock (they have the same name, so it should be easy enough), producing moments of adrenaline and contemplation as they alternately shred and glide across the songs. Occasionally, when the band feel the need to inject some grit into the swift melodic formula, metalcore breakdowns jut up their ugly heads, the most effective of which provides the memorable chorus of “Walk the Plank”, though others are used intelligently to contrast more free-flowing material that surrounds them. On this note, the rhythm players must be praised, since their mastery of pace and time changes does not lag behind their performance of the vocals.
What might be clear from the outline of Back to the Sea is that Dagon have managed to craft a largely memorable batch of songs, the variety of which undoubtedly helps them to achieve their goal of producing a vivid and exciting album. Almost every song has something to distinguish it from the others, though “The Drifting Isle” and “Thralldom to the Crossbones” get lost in a mid-album slump, largely due to the considerable scope of the record. At 68 minutes and 13 songs, Dagon may well have given in too easily to the good vibes of writing together again and failed to edit away excess length and mediocre songs. “Spirit on the Water” drags a credible depressed melody through too many repetitions and perhaps could be halved in length, while everything over five minutes might stand for some honing. Therefore, even cutting a couple of weaker numbers may still have left too much for the listener to get through in one sitting, so it might have been wiser to hold back three or four compositions for another EP either prior to the album or following it. However, credit should go to the band for not totally running out of ideas at any point on Back to the Sea, keeping individual moments engaging, even if the whole feels a little unwieldy by two thirds of the way through.
If you had any interest in Dagon before, Back to the Sea will satisfy in the same way as Terraphobic and the songwriting sounds slightly more honed after their long break. Fans of Amon Amarth, Heaven Shall Burn, and The Black Dahlia Murder will delight in the catchy heaviness and vivid swagger of the slower sections, while Skeletonwitch and Arsis crop up as tangential references, though with the technicality lowered and sails raised. That said, anyone keen on modern melodic metal should be pleased that Dagon are back: let’s hope that the next album doesn’t take so long to weigh anchor.