The Grave Alchemist
The latest release from North Carolinian black/thrash punks All Hell definitely caught my attention, especially because of it’s cover art. With most acts, cover art doesn’t mean a whole lot to me these days – I honestly get sacked with so many of them that I honestly don’t fill with as much excitement over artwork as I used to – but in the case of All Hell, it’s different. If I didn’t know any better, that’s definitely Castlevania themed. Truth be told, it isn’t the kind of thing you would expect for an American black/thrash act and would play more along the lines of symphonic death/goth or possibly even Japanese gothic neoclassical, where such images are prevalent (Nope, I am not talking about Baby Metal here either). I was actually able to talk with the band a little about this, to the tone where I mentioned I might be a little upset if there weren’t at least some nods to the Castlevania soundfont being utilized. I’m a gamer geek, especially with retro games. It’s to be expected. The band replied that they had been aware of my concerns and as the album’s concept is very much along Castlevania’s lines, they may have thrown a little nod or two to the Castlevania soundfont after all. Even if that were minute, it would be much more than what several black/thrash bands are doing these days. I’ve yet to hear gothic black/thrash and I’m starting to doubt that I ever will. Perhaps gloomy keyboards just don’t latch on very well with fierce thrash pummelers at breakneck speed.
In any case, when I finally sat down and began to listen to the album I received something a bit more than I expected. While The Grave Alchemist does not necessarily reinvent the wheel and dump candles and incense all over the whole thing, it does offer something unique. That is not as unique as say, dumping an entire overstock cart from a Japanese gothic lolita shop into the mix; but it is enough to match the Belmont overlooking a castle-esque image on the front. Obviously, the base elements are still there. You’re still getting hard and heavy riffs, scathing vocals and the whole nine-yards that every black/thrash act have given us since the very birth of the genre, but this time there’s just as much black as there is thrash and you’re not getting what is essentially a thrash record with a couple of tremolos added to it for good measure. I’m also noticing some of Satyricon’s Now, Diabolical! influence in areas, taking All Hell far out of the realms of black/thrash and into black/disco. Another interesting measure that they demonstrate is that of a deep, Dracula-friendly vocal implementation that adds a bit of a gothic touch to the performance. Despite that, All Hell haven’t forgotten that they are a black metal act and more than a few cuts recall the genre at it’s most frostbitten and horrific. I like that “The Castle” can come in like Mayhem or Darkthrone and go out like a slightly gloomy Testament. I might even make some Cradle Of Filth nods here, which I feel wholly justified in. No matter how much you despise Dani’s singing, you can’t really deny the effect that a band of that nature had on the industry and even The Grave Alchemist pays tribute to it here and there.
It’s actually a bit odd for a black/thrash act to have any semblance of a concept album, as most of the discs revolve around ripping your face off as loudly and barbarically as can be mustered – but I certainly have to acknowledge the attempt they’ve made at giving this genre a proper story. With story driven pieces, there also must come story-driven structures and these guys have done a great job at capturing that feel throughout the disc. Though every track carries a similar vibe, they are still black/thrashers at heart and feel almost revolutionary in some aspects. Without saying, it will be pretty easy for the guys to rip numbers like “Wed The Night”, “Vampiric Lust” and “Memory Tomb” fairly quickly on the stage, as they aren’t but a couple of minutes long, offer what fans want from the band and make it so that the guys don’t tire themselves out playing the same songs that they’ve offered with previous shows. I honestly think that one of the main reasons artists release new albums sometimes, is just so they don’t have to play the same old songs over and over during every performance. As a writer, it would be comparable to writing the same book over and over again, which is a fate worse than death. Yet at least on that night, some of these new cuts offer a little more to the All Hell structure and will give the band a little more to be occupied with, instead of rehashing Venom and Satyricon at their very best.
To be honest, I never really heard anything that reminded me of Castlevania here and that’s a tad bit unfortunate. Though what I did hear, was exceedingly proficient and well thought out metal with just enough black/thrash mainstays to keep purists happy. Maybe you won’t like the instrumental “Elixir” or “I Am The Mist” as much as you will “Return Of The Reaper” but it is good to hear a band doing more than just their genre-tag describes. I think one of the greatest things about music, is that we can continue to evolve genres and create what Warren Ellis (writer of Transmetropolitan and Red) called, “musical babies.” Technically, when you do take two genres and meld them together in quite the sexual fashion, you get something new and altogether different. These “musical babies” will keep coming as long as people have the urge to continue pushing forward, instead of trying to live out the eighties and nineties again. The Grave Alchemist certainly contains pieces of each scene, but it also contains more modern elements, which makes for quite the listening experience. You’re being hit with everything at once and all of it is noteworthy. If I were to judge the record as a solid listen, then I would certainly find it to be exactly what this genre should be offering at this point in time and not the rehashes of the past – there’s definitely references and hints lodged within the archaic arcane scrolls of this release, but unless you are a heavy metal historian, you’ll only unearth the most important part of this excavation – that it’s a damn good album.