Metal is rife with nostalgiacore. There’s no shortage of retro ’70s bands with embarrassing mustaches or thrash kids with bullet belts putting out records that hearken back to the days of yore. Such yearnings come from a legitimate place, of course. As technology has improved, the sounds of the moment stopped defining modern music and technology started allowing musicians to sound however they want. If you want to write a tribute to 1980s Yes, you can do that. If you want to write songs about Dungeons & Dragons™ while sounding like Thin Lizzy? Have at it! But looking back is also a side effect of the metal scene crawling up its own ass. Now that long songs are a virtue in themselves and melody is for poseurs bands become increasingly inaccessible and, I assume, for many, uninteresting. But you know what Black Sabbath, Metallica, and Iron Maiden all had1 in spades? Great songs, great hooks, and songs that united friends in drunken head-banging.
Black Sites is not nostalgiacore. Former Trials singer, guitarist and writer Mark Sugar’s newest project—signed to Mascot Records likely because I made his album #2 last year—is not an intentional statement of nostalgia for better times in metal. In Monochrome isn’t an album populated by scooped Crate amps and copious overdrive or Marshall stacks and Fender Strats. It doesn’t feature a vocalist who wants to be Bruce Dickinson, nor is there a single backward sample of a bong hit to let you know how high anyone was in the studio. Like the Trials album which preceded it, however, In Monochrome is unapologetically modern, but it has two feet firmly planted in the feel(s) of yesteryear. And it is the feeling of being a traditional metal album—without being remotely derivative—which makes In Monochrome an excellent album.
First and foremost, In Monochrome will be remembered for its riffs and songs. The opening salvo of “M Fisto Waltz,” which merges into the album’s first single “Dead Languages,” makes clear that Mark hasn’t lost a step when it comes to knocking out classic, hooky metal riffs. But rather the full bore thrash attack that characterized This Ruined World—with its trashy, tinny sound and harsh screams—In Monochrome is a groovier, mid-paced album where Sugar’s cleans float over the chunky riffs or a ’90s style tom driven chorus (like in “Dead Languages”). Still, the album is replete with excellent, heavy riffs that wouldn’t be out of place on a heavier record.
What separates Black Sites from its predecessor2 is the old school feel and the traditional sound which resonates without feeling nostalgic. My favorite track—”Burning Away the Day”—alternates between heavy Rainbow and Maiden influences and the kind of jagged riffing which sounds pinched from Morbid Angel and features Sugar’s raspy screams. This juxtaposition of the old school and late thrash characterizes a lot of the songs on In Monochrome and is some of the most effective material. The verse in “Hunter Gatherer” is decidedly traditional, while the song escalates in extremity. “Watching You Fall” sounds like a Sentenced track with a early ’90s Testament chorus. All these different influences and impressions combine to create something which is familiar but unique.
I have two reservations about In Monochrome. First, since Sugar sticks almost entirely to clean vocals, the lyrics come into focus in a way that they never do with extreme music. Since I’m singing along with the lyrics, then I start to chafe a bit. Sugar’s lyrics are certainly not of Kakko quality, but they’re not exactly Gildenlöw, either. This is a weird contradiction on a record where everything else is so polished and well-written. The second reservation comes in the tone of the album and its production. In a way, I’m torn about how it’s produced. I like the sound, but I could have gone for something more stripped down and a master that gave more room to the rhythm section. The old school writing is definitely contrasted with a modern production sound, but things like Picillo’s subtonal bass would work better when not squashed up against Chris Avgerin’s bass drum in the mix.
But these are genuinely minor complaints and Black Sites is impressive. The band is slick, smart, and heavy and In Monochrome is a great record without a weak song on it. Picillo and Avgerin both deliver great performances, while the guitarists Sugar and Bruchert are obviously comfortable with each other and sound great. It’s true that there are no solos quite like ‘tango and thrash’ from “Truth Defiled” on here, but the guitar work is polished and slick and the riffing is second-to-few. Taken as a whole, it’s hard to find fault with In Monochrome, and I don’t think that these guys have gotten anywhere close to their potential yet. I’ll be coming back to In Monochrome all year.
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3s
Label: Mascot Records
Released Worldwide: February 17th, 2017