War is hell. It’s also pretty metal. This defining aspect of the human condition has been touched upon by more bands than you can rattle your saber at. It’s even made its mark on black metal, as Eastern Front will be quick to remind you. Inspired by the brutal eastward incursion by the Axis during World War II, the Brits made a name for themselves with their deathened black offerings in 2010’s Blood on Snow before returning with 2014’s sublime Descent into Genocide. Plundering the history books for wartime atrocities has inspired some ferocious work from Eastern Front before, and EmpirE rides that Panzer down a solid if unsurprising path.
While occupying the same thematic headspace as Marduk and Endstille, Eastern Front musically emulates the latter more directly with their particular brand of “war torn black metal” (Their words, not mine). On paper, it’s not too exciting or original to pair thin, semi-melodic riffs with mid-register rasping, blasting drum beats, and the occasional spoken passage, but EmpirE executes well inside these bounds. Playing with such a common, easily exhaustible formula is like walking through a minefield, but Eastern Front consistently finds ways to stay interesting. The effort is buoyed by a knack for changing course right as the current heading starts to wear thin. Mimicking the tremolo riffs with variations in the chord bridges in “Veiled By Blood;” pairing memorable, Immortal-style riffing with an uncharacteristically short runtime on “The Fire Consumes;” splicing surprising tone shifts into the back half of “No Snow Falls for Sorrow;” every track contains little moments that keep the listener plugged in.
Though never as true a black/death mixture as a group like Archgoat, the death-tinged blitzkrieg that made up such a large part of the first two albums recedes on EmpirE, in part due to new vocalist Marder (ex-Daemona). Her rasps align more with Dani Filth than Mortuus; so much so in fact that I nearly missed a cameo from Mr. Filth himself on “Crimson Mourn.” There’s no lack of quality in Marder’s performance but the out-and-out growls that elevated Descent songs like “Katyn Forest” are sorely missed. Many of Descent’s death-influenced passages evaporate as well, leaving chillier, less stylistically varied intonations in their stead. Eastern Front proved apt at integrating snap-your-neck moments of brutality to their past offerings. Abandoning them now is like leaving the toppings off a pizza: everyone’s ok with cheese, but sausage, garlic, and Parmesan gets the party going.
However, don’t discount EmpirE entirely; it’s a good album that benefits from being more than the sum of its parts. Certain aspects are a bit monotonous for my taste, particularly the ever-pummeling drums, but the central direction still gets my head moving eight listens later. A spot-on DR10 mix never hurts, providing EmpirE space in the rare instances that require it, such as “Husks of Kursk.” Elsewhere, “The Fire Consumes” and “No Snow Falls for Sorrow” became quick additions to my 2016 playlist, while the somber recital of Mary Elizabeth Frye’s “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” on “1000 Winds That Blow” sent me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole in the same fashion as the best history-infused works.
I admire the job EmpirE does in keeping me interested, as I wasn’t exactly enticed with its addition-by-subtraction approach after the first spin. To my surprise, the record grew on me with subsequent listens. I look forward to getting my hands on a complete list of lyrics, as past albums have transcended typical carnage and glory war-ship with fascinating historical direction. Going forward, the death reserves may yet make a triumphant, last-minute return to the battlefield, but if they don’t, Eastern Front have at least earned another chance to fight on with their current war-torn squadron.