With 2017 wrapping itself up nicely like a present to your loved ones,1 changes still occur that can throw one for a loop. Whether they are sudden visits by loved ones, finding a sweet deal on that thing you wanted for so long, or (in my case) landing a new job in a whole new career, last-minute shifts can make or break you. Take Chicago’s Pale Horseman, as their fourth album, The Fourth Seal, was initially set to be released independently until the band got signed just a week before the album was supposed to drop, pushing it back a few weeks. With a new drummer and a renewed vigor, how does The Fourth Seal stack up?
Rather nicely, honestly. “Final War” lurches with the heft of early Crowbar, a comparison further cemented by the dual vocals of guitarists Eric Ondo and Andre “Flesh” Almaraz, sounding like slightly different inflections of Kirk Windstein. Not a bad thing, mind you, as their music goes toe-to-toe with the New Orleans heavyweights. Backed by the tight rhythm of bassist Rich Cygan and drummer Jason Schryver, “Final War” bulldozes over you with slow, murderous intent. Granted, the last two minutes drag out with a riff beaten within an inch of its life, but the pieces are in place for a solid romp through sludgy territory. Not a bad way to open things up.
The heft of the hooks craft a strong foundation for The Fourth Seal to build upon. “Forlorn Extinction” grooves along with an incredible opening riff, powerful drum fills, and hook after crushing hook. Closer “Phantasmal Voice” drags the listener through cold, muddy waters through the power of Flesh’s howling voice and a deliberately-paced tempo. And speaking of Flesh, his Jaz Coleman-esque howl during album standout “Bereavement”‘s chorus elevates the song to great heights, adding an infectious air to an already great song. When Pale Horseman fire on all cylinders, the results hook and pummel with the best of the sludge kingdom.
But these all come with some heavy caveats. I love a good, sludgy riff, but not when it’s beaten to the ground and rendered moot. Sadly, that occurs constantly throughout The Fourth Seal, with riffs and full songs going well past their sell-by date. “Bereavement,” as great a song as it is, could be made even more potent by trimming off a few minutes. “Pale Rider” also drags on and on, and “Gnashing of Teeth” features a riff in the middle that goes on for far too long. It’s not enough to kill the album’s vibe outright, but it does make powerful songs less powerful due to repetition and riff fatigue. What’s not fatiguing is the production by Bongripper‘s Dennis Pleckham, with thick, chewy guitars, bass you can feel, and drums that don’t so much pop as they do flatten you on their path to destruction.
The Fourth Seal sees Pale Horseman displaying not only promise but a serious fire in their playing. With some tightening up of their songwriting skills, they could very well be a force to be reckoned with in the sludge metal arena. Give them an album or two, and they could very well take up that throne effortlessly. Keep up the good work, guys!