Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong decade. Every time I think back to the pop culture of the 90s, all I remember is boring daytime television and lazy post-grunge blaring on the radio. In contrast, the 80s seemed much more exciting — the jeans were tight, the horror movies were actually good, and extreme metal was first clawing its way into existence via stacks of battered demo tapes and tattered home-printed zines. Greek trio Principality of Hell apparently felt the same way. On 2014 debut Fire & Brimstone, these Thou Art Lord members decided to take a break from their main project to espouse their love of classic 80s acts like Venom, Bathory, and Celtic Frost. The result was a galloping joyride of sizzling riffs and memorable songs that, in retrospect, my younger self probably didn’t rate high enough. Nevertheless, two years later the trio is back to continue their vintage black/thrash crusade with sophomore outing Sulfur & Bane. And while the band has delivered another enjoyable record in Sulfur, there’re a few key differences here that prevent it from reaching quite the same heights.
After the introductory recitation of “A Prayer,” first proper track “Blood Moon Rising” makes one thing clear from the start: Principality have significantly upped their early Bathory influence. Unlike the warm and balanced production on Fire, “Moon” breaks in with a sound more akin to a clearer version of Bathory’s The Return. Raw buzzy guitars dominate the forefront, drums hammer along further in the back, and vocalist/bassist ‘The Magus’ wedges himself in the middle with a raspy croak that sounds like he’s spent months honing his Quorthon impression. The title track continues in this vein with thrashy proto-black riffing and a chorus that could have come straight from Under the Sign of the Black Mark (‘Sulfur and bane! I cannot stop the pain!’).
Fortunately, these changes haven’t stopped guitarist ‘El’ from delivering some creative moments that twist the early black metal mold. “The Diabolist” opens with a terrific hailing progression that recalls Melechesh, of all things, before a slashing tremolo melody kicks in for the second half. Likewise, the Nifelheim-esque “Den of the Serpent” supplements its rambunctious tempo with more devilish tremolos, while “Sons of the Desert” mixes things up with a cleanly picked opening and a ‘call-and-response’ chorus that juxtaposes Magus’ rasps with chanted, reverberating cleans. El’s solos are more notable this time around as well, soaring with colorful energy and providing just the spark songs like bobbing closer “The Marble Witch” need. It’s innovations like the squealing, atmospheric leads on this track that make Sulfur exciting and prevent it from feeling like a total retread of bands we’ve all heard before.
Unfortunately, these moments don’t go far enough. While I was admittedly slightly disappointed in the band’s decision to substitute the old-school raucousness of the debut with more overt first-wave black metal worship, the thing that really holds Sulfur back is its tendency to lapse into ideas which sound like only the slightest variations on the bands Principality are emulating. While “In the Shadows of Sodom” features a nice frantic pace, it’s also pretty much identical to what any band inspired by Venom has been writing for the last three decades. Likewise, the slow, Hellhammer-esque “The Invisible Empire” and “The Black Ram” offer little but a down-tempo respite between the quicker cuts, despite taking up over a quarter of Sulfur’s 40-minute runtime.
When I reviewed Fire & Brimstone two years ago my main complaint was that the band was shackled too tightly to the past, and in many ways, Sulfur has the same Achilles heel. While this is a convincing tribute to the old-school and a wholly enjoyable album in its own right, it doesn’t do enough with its influences to make it a total scorcher. Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that Principality have tacked on six cover tracks at the end of the record, ranging from Slayer’s “Black Magic” to Sodom’s “Blasphemer.” Fans of those acts and other unpolished 80s groups are sure to enjoy the occult atmosphere and throwback riffs that Sulfur & Bane offers – just don’t expect something that dethrones the innovators. The 80s, apparently, were simply a world of their own.