Metal is an inherently backward-looking style. For every band that’s pushing the envelope and driving things in new directions (see Fallujah’s stellar attempt at so-called ‘deathgaze’ on their newest), there are two or three proudly waving the tattered flag of the old-school, seeking to recreate the glory of the genre’s innovators. Enter Principality of Hell, a Greek trio formed last year by veterans of other Greek acts Thou Art Lord, Necromantia and Ravencult. They specialize in black-thrash – not the modern kind exemplified by Nocturnal Graves and the like, but the classic variety that hearkens back to when the two genres were first emerging through common ancestors like Venom, Celtic Frost and Bathory. Of course, any group with a large enough collection of 80s metal records and a raw guitar tone might try to emulate those bands. But can they actually make good music?
Fortunately, on debut Fire and Brimstone, the answer is a resounding yes. For those that failed to familiarize themselves beforehand, Principality of Hell waste no time bringing listeners up to speed on their love of classic 80s metal. After a few ambient seconds of roasting fire at the start of the opening title track, the tranquility is shattered by a vintage riff and a shout of “Black Fucking Metal!” From there, simplicity is the name of the game, not just on the rest of the opener with its verse-chorus-verse structure and blunt-as-a-sledgehammer lyrics (“Fire and brimstone! Fire and brimstone in your face!”), but the entire album. On most songs, you can count the number of riffs on one hand, while picking your nose with it. Grossness aside, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – Venom were a highly influential group and they weren’t exactly writing progressive epics (At War With Satan notwithstanding) [Even that was about as progressive as D.R.I. — Steel Druhm].
Furthermore, Principality of Hell understand that with music this straightforward, variety is critical, thus they offer heaps of it to keep the listener engaged. After an ambient intro, “The Bleeding Nun” breaks in with a galloping drumbeat and a powerfully simple riff that’s easy to enjoy. Up-tempo cuts like the vicious “We Ride At Night” (the closest things come to modern black-thrash) and dirges like “Leviathan” also help mix things up – but it’s the Motorhead-esque “The Witches’ Coven” that really steals the show, especially when its medieval melodic lick rears its head midway through. “Hellfire Legions” follows as another highlight featuring mid-paced, grandiose riffing, it conjures images of the smoldering aftermath of an ancient battle. I can almost imagine Tom G. Warrior nodding approvingly in the background.
The variation within songs is commendable as well. The clear, sharp solos that occasionally flare up provide welcome melody and a sinister atmosphere without sacrificing the old-school feel. On several tracks, the guitar drops out completely in some of the verses, allowing the bass to take over. Finally, in “The Bleeding Nun,” the last iteration of the chorus features livelier drumming and tortured female shrieks to make things feel fresh.
If there’s any quibble to be had with Fire and Brimstone, it’s that moments like these feel more necessary than they should. With music so basic, at times it feels like they’re straining to do something different without betraying the sound they’ve pledged themselves. When Bathory et al first played this style thirty years ago, it was fresh and their riffs were iconic. Nowadays, being so tightly shackled to the past has its drawbacks. A few more original-sounding riffs, off-kilter songwriting choices, or vocal parts that differentiated themselves from a first-wave black metal croak would have improved things quite a bit. Fortunately, the music does sound great, with a raw biting production that makes each instrument clear without sounding too modern.
I’m sure a modern sound is exactly what the band were hoping to avoid in such a painstakingly crafted tribute to the forefathers of extreme metal. Sure, there is room for improvement, but that just leaves me anticipating the potential follow-up even more ravenously. With songs that’ll leave you wispy-eyed for 1984 as you rifle through the closet for your patched leather jacket, Principality of Hell prove you don’t need to be at the forefront of innovation to write a good album. Sometimes looking backward isn’t a bad thing.
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 192 kbps Mp3
Label: W.T.C. Productions
Release Date: Out Worldwide on 08.18.2014