I like the beats and I like the yelling: Sanctifying Ritual, Heruka, FRONT

Sanctifying Ritual: Sanctifying Ritual (2020)

Germany’s Sanctifying Ritual released their self-titled debut this year, and it’s been a while in the making. We’re treading that familiar path into the old school, this time wearing our death metal hats, albeit with a more atmospheric, ‘evil’ aesthetic that was once refreshing in a post tech-death world. This is the true heir of the late 80s and early 90s of Sarcofago and Merciless, with a balanced understanding of the NWOBHM roots of this music. We’ve skipped out on the blackened pizza thrash carnival that has managed to turn many intellectually deficient heads in recent years, and instead gone right back to Motorhead via some classic early 80s punk for a good portion of rhythmic bounce.

Production also apes this old school aesthetic, with drums sounding raw and organic, caked in reverb to compensate for the warmth this exudes. Vocals ditto. The guitar tone – in line with Sanctifying Ritual’s archaic influences – is warmer, with an analogue aesthetic, again dripping with reverb to compensate for the lack of bass this entails. However, everything is sharp and crisp enough to do justice to the chaotic proto-black metal riffs that make up the body of this work. Atonality meets tritone play, with the marked distinction of sticking to staccato strumming over tremolo, which not only sets this apart from fully fledged primitive death metal, but also emphasises the complexity that emerges from these rudimentary elements in a more chaotic and haphazard way than metal that was to follow this style. Hell, at this point it should be pointed out that we’re now talking about this album like it was released in 1988, and most extreme metal was yet to come. This is how convincing a relic this is when compared to many other modern attempts in a similar vein.

But there are small licks and refrains that jump out throughout this album that betray its 21st century antecedents. Not least its melding of death metal riffs from the Autopsy school, again a choice that makes sense in the context of Sanctifying Ritual, who – for the most part – bypasses the main trends of influence in American thrash and delves into an older lineage for its cues. But this is all knitted together into a grand, epic vision to the point that the whole thing ebbs and flows in a familiar yet imaginative haze of well crafted, primitive extreme metal. This also goes for their ability to contrast the animalistic elements with sweeping breakdowns, augmented by generic but engaging leads; these are also signalled by a reprieve in the relentless atonality, as melody sets in, and the drums go from their mid-tempo skin bashing to a more free-flowing approach, characterised by choppy fills and slower tempos.

Far from being yet another trip down memory lane, ‘Sanctifying Ritual’ is such a competent and imaginative album, to the point where it feels like an attempt to re-write memory lane entirely. A second chance at history, one that addresses whatever shortcomings we felt were present in those touchstone albums from the old school that are commonly name dropped when discussing the era. What modern or original flourishes are present are deliberately supressed, or so well integrated into the machinery of this album as to contribute to the unity of the whole.

So I’ll end with a word of warning to digest alongside the broadly positive response I have to this album. One wonders if there is enough to the original material found on this release to pull together an album with more of its own identity on future works from this artist. Sanctifying Ritual have enough character and class of their own, to the point where the old school aesthetic becomes a distraction. I mean, for fuck’s sake I’ve spent most of this review gassing on about it like it was their intention. I’d rather devote words to the individual character and philosophy of an artist (or lack thereof) than endlessly pontificate on the cultural streams of metal that each album taps into. But such is the obvious intent with Sanctifying Ritual that it becomes impossible to effectively talk about this album and avoid spending a significant chunk fixated on its revivalist ethic. This remains, despite this caveat, a cut above the rest, and well worth a nosey.

Heruka: No Sun Dared Pass our Windows (2020)

Well this is a treat. Don’t let the depressive cover art and title deter you, Heruka’s latest LP ‘No Sun Dared Pass our Window’ is powerful, life affirming black metal in the hyper frantic yet melodic vein of Cirith Gorgor. The maelstrom of disorientating riffs, bolstered by drums that follow restlessly in their wake, frequently gives way to triumphant folk melodies, or the occasional heroic ascending scale run. Some Iron Maiden influences even shine through the lead guitars at various points, but they are always tempered by the more aggressive tendencies this music is bound to. Despite having much in common with the melodic traditions of symphonic black metal, the actual symphonics are largely absent from this album, with the guitars dominating the field as the musical core of ‘No Sun Dared Pass our Windows’. This is further restrained by the high tempos that Heruka stick to. There are no free flowing, smooth transitions of rhythm, or tempos below 120bpm, everything is hacked up and disjointed, or else played at breakneck speed.

There is however, no small amount of theatrics and melodrama present on this album. Not least some of the riffs that sometimes transition from aggressively joyful to outright catchy. The opening riff of ‘Walking Dead Syndrome’ for instance calls to mind…fucking…..Men At Work’s ‘Down Under’? (seriously). But it quickly gives way to epic, sweeping melodicism supplemented by the aggressive, chromatic habits common to this strain of hyper fast, chaotic black metal. Although contrast between these two competing moods is more often jarring than complementary, the overall impression is a diverse and competent album that doesn’t overwhelm with utter chaos, even upon first listen. This leads to the temptation to say that this would be a great beginner’s album for those curious newcomers, unused to some of extreme metal’s more impatient, bombastic traits.

Vocals contribute to this grandiose aesthetic just on the right side of good taste. Although for the most part fairly standard for aggressive black metal, they do indulge in spoken word of the militaristic, politician-at-the-podium style found in excess on albums like Mayhem’s ‘Grand Declaration of War’. They also have a melodic sensibility beneath the distorted veneer, following the jaunty folk leads from time to time, and further allowing Heruka to break up the relentless ear-pounding this music would otherwise become. Overall this is a surprisingly engaging LP that gracefully walks the line between accessibility and a nuanced sense of the epic.

FRONT: Antichrist Militia (2020)

Many years ago I watching the DVD extras of ‘Until the Light takes Us’. Battling through yet another unfocused, rambling interview with my boy Varg on why Mayhem were shit and not all that important to black metal, he dropped the word ‘funcore’ in to describe the ‘Deathcrush’ EP. Obviously he meant it as an insult, and fun is still a dirty word in some Prozak shaped circles. But the ‘funcore’ kind of stuck in my mind as a useful adjective, and I’ve kept it in regular circulation for certain stripes of metal that indulge in this over the top, aggressive revelry that is markedly on display on FRONT’s latest EP ‘Antichrist Militia’. There is however, one very important thing to remember about fun that is shockingly absent from ‘Antichrist Militia’, I speak, of course, of spontaneity.

Maybe this EP caught me on the wrong day, or maybe it’s time to state once again that the old school blackened thrash revival (this time with a good measure of Swedish death metal chucked in for good measure) is now ‘just as trendy as disco’; or y’know…done. ‘Antichrist Militia’ is bouncy blackened thrash, with more references to Motorhead and punk ‘funcore’ chucked in to temper the aggressive, militaristic tendencies also packed into this EP. They display a comprehensive understanding of their influences, and how to piece together d-beat thrash and darken the aesthetic with some Swedish death and old school black metal riffs.

And that is where praise disembarks the review train and question marks board. Where’s the spontaneity? Where’s the fun? Where’s the soul? We’ve gone beyond worrying about how lazy and unoriginal a lot of this music is becoming, plenty of releases displaying a dearth of originality can get by on creativity, competence, heart, or a thing we call fun. But here we have an EP that lacks anything beyond a colour by numbers dark thrash aesthetic, and tight musicianship in service of extreme metal we’ve heard a million times before. Leaving us with the inevitable conclusion that by 2020 we should know better. Or if we have to be retracing our steps with every other new release then at least inject some character and jeopardy into the mix. Contrast that with Sanctifying Ritual’s new album, which re-treads much of the same terrain but carries with it a soul and character of its own. But FRONT have done no such thing. To the point where this feels like the result of a clickbait article entitled ‘We forced a bot to listen to the last one thousand blackened thrash albums released in 2019, here’s the EP it wrote’.

And that’s really the point. There are sloppier, clumsier releases in the modern ‘funderground’. But such is the competence of FRONT’s musicianship, their ability to construct these tracks, know where to place each segment to achieve the desired impact, their knowledge of the nuts and bolts of composing in this style, there are certainly far worse releases out there. But that somehow makes the impact of this all the colder. There is no instructive tale to weave out of this release, of success, failure, or potential. There is only more content. Pick it up if you like hearing the style being played damn near flawlessly. Beyond that it was found wanting.

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