I love listening to death metal. I could easily call a doctor after four hours spent with innards–outers American, Polish, and every nationality in between. Writing about it? Not so much. For some reason, my enthusiasm never translates to print nearly as well as my usual poser fare. But when death styled after The Lord of the Rings surfaces among the promos — “elf–released” to boot — I will delve the depths to secure my precious, the jewels of Khazaddum. The Milwaukee quartet pours their cruelty, malice, and will to dominate all life into the sterling Plagues Upon Arda, one of most polished and suffocating death metal debuts of the year.
Entering “The Halls of Khazad-Dum,” a sweeping symphony ushers you through Howard Shore’s vision of death metal. Its building pomp is matched by the release of “The Deathless Crown.” Monstrous rage fuses evocative Nile riff spirals and Behemoth’s cymbal-tinged atmosphere with a Morbid Angel underbelly and the neck-breaking pulses of Gomorrah. Pete Kissane’s unwavering kicks echo through the cavernous expanse. His rides and crashes hiss and shimmer with Inferno’s touch. “Lord of Isengard” relents no less. The Nile riffs ramp up, stronger, meaner, intent on heating brains to the point of combustion. Luka Djordjevic flaunts a massive set of pipes, defiling and spoiling his surroundings with his deep gutturals. Khazaddum pursue the death metal ideal, battering eardrums with decimating riff after bone-crushing fill, slaughtering all who dare enter their domain.
As true LotR-metal should, “The Fell Rider’s Scourge” and “The Black Hand of Gorthaur” expand their cinematic gravitas by returning symphonics to the foray, but never let up on their death metal assault. Plagues Upon Arda is truly merciless, pulling one tooth after the next, but begins to feel stifling after a few spins. Khazaddum could actually stand to use their atmospherics more than they do to add breathing room throughout the record, so long as they avoid going full Fleshgod. When not handled properly, the brutal gauntlet that makes up the first half of the record goes from good crushing to bad crushing. Perhaps a simple track order shuffle solves the impenetrability issue, but even the more deviant tracks trend toward the same style in the nuts and bolts of the metal. Plagues also maintains a constant vibe that results in portions of the record sounding very similar. Someday I will stop air-guitaring-and/or-drumming the insanely delicious Nile riff-Behemoth crash wombo-combo on “Lord of Isengard” every time I hear it, but not this day. However, “The Deathless Crown” and “Legion of the White Hand” bookend the track with moments that hit no less hard but sound too close for comfort.
Good or bad, much of Plagues‘ weight originates from Kissane’s drum performance. Metal Pete is a fucking machine, channeling unbridled kinetic energy into roll–after–roll, fill–after–fill. But instances like slower closer “Oathbreaker’s Curse” see him still thumping away. It is rare that I criticize a drummer for drumming too much, but in this scenario, I wish he would take a breather. The blow–up on the track’s second half would have more impact if he laid off the kicks in the run–up. Alex Rausa handles all of the axework alone and shines like the Arkenstone. Most tracks have at least one head–snapper, and tracks like “Shelob the Great” and “The Black Hand of Gorthaur” are no less stellar despite their relative restraint.
I applaud Khazaddum‘s approach to their source material. They eschew overt fan service like shoehorning in gimmicky sound bites or quotes1 in favor of keeping the metal pure. This reviewer had a full nerdgasm upon discovering the One Ring theme hidden among the riffs of Khazaddum‘s preceding EP, but playing the same hand here would writ large upon the music. Instead, the band play it straight and let Plagues Upon Arda excels by its own merits. At a time where Nile is a shadow of its former self and another Behemoth album at least a year away, Khazaddum offer up a gem worthy of their forebearers.