Arghoslent are one of the best bands that ever shot themselves in the foot. Their melodic NWOBHM-tinged death metal was both original and exhilarating, but was sadly overshadowed by the group’s questionable ideology (sample song titles: “Hereditary Taint,” “Rape of a Slave”). Searching for a similar-sounding group without the racist overtones, I was thus overjoyed by Minneapolis’ House of Atreus and their debut EP, 2013’s Into the Brazen Bull. The galloping, empowering riffs, melodic leads, and thrashy pace were practically a carbon-copy of Arghoslent, though the bands share neither members nor (thankfully) lyrical themes. Two years later, Dark Descent is releasing their full-length debut, The Spear and the Ichor that Follows. Having waited for a new Arghoslent album since 2008 (and grown tired of explaining why a song called “Flogging the Cargo” is in my Top 25 Most Played in iTunes), my anticipation was high – does Spear deliver?
I’ll say outright that my overall opinion of Spear is similar to how Steel Druhm felt about Gruesome‘s debut – while it’s a good record of ‘x’-worship, I’ll never reach for it over the real thing. Granted, the spirit is certainly here: opener “Trenches of Fortune” charges right in with the best riff Arghoslent never wrote before overlaying imperial speed-metal leads and progressing into a real shitkicker of a twirling guitar line, all over vocalist Anxietous Nero’s passionate, intelligible rasps. Later, the melodic conclusions of “Oresteia – The Unforgotten Scorns” and black metal-esque closer “The River Black” sound like a country-fried Battlecross, with the main riff of the former featuring awesome call-and-response phrasing that brings to mind war trumpets blaring over lifeless mounds of Roman soldiers.
However, the style and songwriting haven’t changed much since the EP, which leaves Spear with the same general issue: while they can mimic the guitar tone and chromatic structure of Arghoslent, House of Atreus‘s riffs simply aren’t as good. These entire 43 minutes are basically a nonstop barrage of enjoyable but fairly nondescript riffing that, sadly, fails to play to the band’s strengths. The most memorable guitarwork here relies on melodic leads rather than worn battle-metal chords, and while there are exceptions (the Incorrigible Bigotry-style charge that dominates the second half of “Messenger of a Shaken Host,” or the speedy fist-pumping progression that opens late-album highlight “Beasts of Antiquity”), songs like “Heir to the Crown of Sodom” are basically a six-minute exercise in waiting for a good idea that never comes.
The production aggravates this issue, as although the DR of 6 isn’t quite brickwalled, the guitar tone – while warm and fiery – is slightly overbearing, and washes out the nuances of the rhythm guitar in a way that the EP never did. More breathing room would have helped, but luckily, the other elements are potent and balanced enough that this becomes more of an annoyance than a crippling flaw. On the plus side, with the almost-uplifting clean notes of “Veiled in Dignities of Wrath,” the grandiose blasting of aforementioned closer “River,” and the mid-paced jaunt of “Throne of Chariots,” Spear offers a good bit of variety, and the overall energy level of the quicker tracks like aforementioned “Beasts” lead me to believe House of Atreus would be a blast to see live – at least for the first 20 minutes or so. By that point, I imagine I’d shrug while I sip the last of my warm beer and think about turning away from the sweaty throngs and gauntlet-clad arms for a refill.
That’s pretty much my lasting impression of the album: it’s good melodic battle-metal fun, but tighter songwriting and a better ear for quality riffs – not to mention a less obnoxious production – would have done wonders. If (like me) you’ve scrobbled Hornets of the Pogrom enough times that you’re probably on an FBI watch list somewhere, Spear at least offers something new in the same vein. For the rest, take it or leave it and give Galloping Through the Battle-Ruins a listen instead.