Black Anvil is one of those bands you always expect to break through on their next record. Formed in 2007 by members of New York hardcore act Kill Your Idols, the black metal quartet’s 2009 debut Time Insults the Mind and 2010 follow-up Triumvirate initially seemed poised to break the group out of the underground with their infusion of Watain-style riffing into a sweaty hardcore aesthetic. Sadly, the riffs weren’t too memorable, and the songwriting possessed a frustrating “almost-there” quality which ultimately left those records collecting dust on my shelf. It wasn’t until 2014’s Hail Death that Anvil really stepped things up, incorporating latter-day Behemoth riffs and hefty chugs into longer, more adventurous compositions. It should have been the album that made them a household name – instead, Death seemed to be largely dismissed as a 67-minute slog whose songwriting couldn’t support the seven-minute song lengths. Three years later, will As Was finally give Anvil their big break?
That certainly seems to be what the band’s hoping for. Right from the first minutes of opener “On Forgotten Ways,” it’s clear we’re in for a wholly different beast than past records. Sure, the melodic black metal riffing and swamp-hag rasps are still here, but the monumental chugs of Death have largely been replaced by ample use of airy singing, resonant leadwork, and progressive interludes. Take the title track, which supplements the trudging build of its verses with wailing clean vocals, before moving into what sounds like a major key progressive rock section, and then concluding with a stomping melodic finish. Even the blastbeats and twisted tremolos of “May Her Wrath Be Just,” the shortest and most direct track here, lead to a conclusion of harmonized cleans.
On the whole, this is easily the lightest record Black Anvil have yet produced, but that doesn’t mean the band has forgotten how to write a decent riff. Second-half highlight “As an Elder Learned Anew” sounds like an old Rotting Christ song with its addictively simple, ritualistic progression, while “Nothing” features a conclusion of swaggering cock-rock riffs and wahhing solos which betray the group’s apparent affinity for hard rock.1 But the real standout performance is the drumming of Raeph Glicken. As heard on “Nothing,” Glicken can blast with the best of them, but he really shines when he deftly shifts into a peppier tempo on aforementioned “Anew,” or incorporates thrumming buildups on tracks like “Two Keys: Here’s the Lock” and album highlight and closer “Ultra.”
Yet while the band’s shift toward more experimental territory doesn’t bother me, there are some irritating things about As Was that prevent me from scoring it higher. At 8 tracks and 51 minutes in length, Was is a long record, a fact exacerbated by the fairly mellow second half and occasionally unfocused songwriting. Take aforementioned “Two Keys,” which features an opening that recalls acoustic Opeth, before meandering for nine minutes without ever landing on a memorable riff. While songs like “Ways” use a rough verse-chorus format to good effect, on the whole these tracks don’t ever feel like they really climax or explode like they should – instead, they simply float along, one decent idea after another, with just a whiff of unfulfilled potential.
Still, front to back this a well-arranged and enjoyable album, and the ritualistic vibe generated by the cooing singing and sinister, haunting guitars gives As Was a hearty dose of atmosphere. Fans of the band’s more savage past works may be slightly disappointed, but it’s hard to fault a band for experimenting and expanding their sound. In the future, Black Anvil would do well to hone their songs by focusing on the truly biting riffs and cutting out the obviously inferior ones, as well as varying the delivery of their melodic singing. For now, As Was is a competent and enjoyable progressive black metal record, that, once again, has me thinking they’ll really come into their own on their next record. Fingers crossed.