A Metal Blade quartet

By Craig Haze

Metal Blade celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2012. While the label has already released a plethora of classic and genre-defining albums, and fostered and supported our dearly loved heavy metal community, it remains, to this day, as active and energetic as ever. What the metal realm would have looked like without Metal Blade’s steely presence over the past three decades is a frightening thought indeed.

Consider just some of the albums Metal Blade has released this year: Cannibal Corpse’s latest behemoth Torture; the diabolic psychedelic ritual The Thousandfold Epicentre by The Devil’s Blood; and The Black Chord, Astra’s latest interstellar expedition. Not to mention Monolith of Inhumanity, the upcoming Cattle Decapitation album, which is sure to be one of 2012’s crucial releases. Metal Blade is firing on all cylinders, and in my never-ending quest to review everything that deserves some column inches, here’s a round up of some of the label’s latest releases.

Angel Witch: As Above, So Below (Rise Above/Metal Blade)

If you’re an ardent fan of NWOBHM you’ll appreciate it’s a field littered with the corpses of hugely talented bands that, for one reason or another, failed to find traction. Some delivered a singular, rugged little masterpiece before disappearing into the misty moors (or more likely onto the dole queue), while others followed up their hefty first albums with increasingly tepid drivel. Such was the case with Angel Witch. The band, led by singer/guitarist Kevin Heybourne, delivered a classic with their influential self-titled 1980 debut. It’s been cited, quite rightly, as a seminal NWOBHM release, and has been reissued numerous times. Although the band went on to release other albums, they never recaptured the fiery spirit of the first, and Angel Witch eventually dissolved before they could do irrevocable harm to their reputation.

But now, almost 30 years since the last release, stalwart Heybourne is back—fronting a new line-up, daring to reenter the fray and add something to Angel Witch’s legacy. It’s a worrying proposition for fans, as we’ve been left disappointed countless times by other bands taking a last and desperate gasp. But let me assure you, As Above, So Below is magnificent, effortlessly eclipsing all of the band’s other post-debut work. Finally, Angel Witch have added an album to their oeuvre that’s worthy of following their debut.

The album mixes newly written tracks with unreleased material from the ’80s, yet they all blend seamlessly, flawlessly evoking the band’s signature sound. Older tracks like “Dead Sea Scrolls” and “Into the Dark” sit happily alongside newer tracks like “Geburah” and the seven-minute-plus epic “Brainwashed”. And while Heybourne’s playing is less fleet and frantic than in the past, there’s no shortage of stirring riffs and solos. His voice remains rich, with a delightful world-weary timbre, and drummer Andrew Prestidge and bassist Will Palmer do an admirable job of rounding out the trio. (Bill Steer augments the band in the live setting, adding, no doubt, some extra special crunch and punch.)

Producer Jaime Gomez Arellano has found the perfect balance between rawness and clarity, summoning up the heavy-duty grittiness of Angel Witch’s earliest work. Any concerns you might have had about the band attempting to reenergize their career so far down the line can be discarded—As Above, So Below is an inspired addition to Angel Witch’s catalogue.

Exumer: Fire & Damnation (Metal Blade)

Angel Witch are not the only band on Metal Blade’s roster aiming to take another bite out of metal’s rotten apple. German thrashers Exhumer are back too, with Fire & Damnation, the band’s first new release in 25 years. Exhumer originally broke up in 1990, but the founders, vocalist Mem V. Stein and guitarist Ray Mensh, reanimated the band in 2008. Fire & Damnation works hard to recapture their Teutonic thrashing might.

Recording with producer Waldemar Sorychta was a smart move. Fire & Damnation is suitably punishing, with a nostalgic sound that’ll satisfy folks with a fondness for the scrappier work of Exodus, Kreator and co. There’s plenty of strong songwriting in evidence as well. “Vermin of the Sky”, “Walking the Sky”, “I Dare You” and “Devil Chaser” are all barnstorming numbers. But every track has a thoroughly old school thrashing charm. It’s hardly revolutionary (it stays firmly in rigid thrash parameters) but Exumer have done themselves proud. Like Angel Witch, they’ve definitely added to, rather than subtracted from, their legacy.

Ram: Death (Metal Blade)

Although Death is the third full-length from Swedish traditional metallers Ram, it’s the first I’ve heard of them. And going by the evidence presented here, I’ll be diving into their back catalogue forthwith. Reaching back into the past for inspiration—think Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate—magnificent twin lead axe attacks abound courtesy of Ram founder Harry Granroth and his six-string cohort Daniel Johansson. Vocalist Oscar Carlquist has a powerful, rough-edged howl, Tobias Peterson plucks that bass manically, and Morgan Pettersson pounds the life out of his skins. I’m sorry to revert to metal clichés, but Death is rousing, rock-solid metal, utterly invigorating, and made to be played excruciatingly loud.

” …Comes from the Mouth Beyond”, “I Am the End”, and the absolutely brilliant rapid-fire romp of “Under the Scythe” are all blazing delights, indebted to the quintessential, unpretentious gung-ho spirit of European power metal and NWOBHM. Death is packed to the gunwales with riotous soloing and heads-down uncompromising riffing. Even when the band slows down for the mid-tempo “Hypnos”, “Release Me” and almost-ballad “Frozen”, there’s so much unyielding steeliness involved that you never once want to stop shaking your fist at the sky.

Produced by Per Stålberg and Olle Björk, Death is full-blooded and unrestrained. The band manage to capture the amp-searing enthusiasm of bands of yore without sounding in the least like a pale imitation. Ram deserve a lot more visibility and, like fellow Metal Blade artists In Solitude and Portrait, they’re a firm reminder that the realm of classic metal has a lot of life and ingenuity left in it yet.

OSI: Fire Make Thunder

Fire Make Thunder is the fourth album from the progressive duo of Kevin Moore (former Dream Theater keyboardist) and Jim Matheos (acclaimed Fates Warning and Arch/Matheos guitarist). I’m an enormous fan of progressive rock and metal, and a huge fan of Matheos’ work with his other outfits. But somehow OSI have never jelled with me. I’m putting it down to their patented blend of ’90s electronic and guitar textures, which to my mind, while sounding sophisticated, lacks a distinctive enough personality (Porcupine Tree do it better).

Got that? Good. Because although Fire Make Thunder doesn’t agree with me personally, that’s not to say the album doesn’t have a raft of attractive features—particularly for fans of contemporary European prog. Moore and Matheos are both extremely talented musicians; as such, the album is superbly recorded and flawlessly rendered. Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison is here, adding some of his complicated percussive flourishes, and there are plenty of moody, ruminative passages to wallow about in.

Fire Make Thunder is ultimately quite beautiful, but like all questions of beauty, the eye (or ear) of the beholder has the final say. For me, no. For you, quite possibly—and if you’re at all a fan of pristine prog I’d encourage you to check it out, regardless of my opinion.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.