Three years ago at a Krallice show in New York, a band named Black Anvil took stage, struck an immense wall-shaking chord, and immediately captivated my unsuspecting ears with their hefty, head-crushing riffs. Unlike the post-progressive-neo-sludge-blueberry muffin-whatever I expected to accompany Krallice, Black Anvil was firmly grounded in the primal forms of extreme metal, somehow combining black, death, thrash, and doom without sounding like they’d spent the last decade huffing rubber cement and playing Celtic Frost records backwards. Imagine my further surprise when I found the group had their roots not in underground metal, but hardcore punk.
Yep, after the demise of hardcore act Kill Your Idols in 2007, three members formed Black Anvil that same year, releasing their first grimy romp-and-stomp throwdown Time Insults the Mind in 2008, only to sharpen their metallic edge with Relapse Records debut Triumvirate in 2010. Triumvirate was a mixed bag: I loved the original style, but it lacked the band’s live energy and felt a bit confused in the songwriting department. Looking back, Triumvirate merely served as a stylistic foothold, a foundation for the band to build something greater.
Four years in the making, Hail Death is that something greater. It simultaneously corrects the flaws of Triumvirate, incorporates new elements, and hones the songwriting. Gone are the awkward climaxes that never come: take “Seven Stars Unseen,” which, after about three minutes of blueball-inducing buildup, settles into a rollicking groove that feels utterly gigantic. Likewise, opener “Still Reborn” could be their strongest song yet, combining Watain-esque tremolos, classic rock solos, a raw rehearsal-room vibe (the shouted “one-two-three-four!” break before the air-guitar-worthy solo is one of my favorite metal moments this year), and hooky, subtly employed cleans that serve as a compelling counterpoint to Gary Bennett’s rasp. That’s right: clean vocals. Throughout Hail Death, their inclusion is sparse and tastefully done, setting Black Anvil apart in a scene wary of experimentation. The start of closer “Next Level Black,” for example, could be traditional doom before the tempo increases and harsh vocals enter. Gang vocals in the background of “Redemption Through Blood” and mysteriously titled “N” add another lovely garnish on an already enjoyable dish, while operatic wails in “Until the End” create a glorious I-survived-the-apocalypse vibe that meshes nicely with the melancholic clean picking.
Then there’s that sinister twisted hook on “My Hate is Pure” and the loping woolly mammoth riff that closes “Redemption Through Blood” – all great moments, but there is one disclaimer. Simply put, this is a long fucking record. At 67 minutes with nine tracks (the shortest of which is just over five minutes), the ‘ah, fuck it’ attitude with regards to song lengths makes it a bit of chore to sit through, especially during flat moments like in “N.” On the flip side, the length does cultivate a grandiose feel that makes the highs feel even more climatic.
Luckily, the production is superb. All elements of the mix are clearly presented and pack a punch, and yet there’s still a sense of openness and distance to everything. The effect is an entrancing atmosphere, calling to mind rainy nighttime streets and stark urban decay. And let’s be honest for a second – at its core heavy metal is about escapism, and when those massive chords reverberate from my speakers, I can mentally depart my shitty South Carolina apartment and pretend I’m something other than a mid-twenties burnout who listens to Babymetal because apparently that’s what’s trendy these days. Maybe that’s why I enjoy this so much: whereas I lack any ambition, Black Anvil seem to have a fierce desire to grow and carve out their own sound when their peers seem content to endlessly emulate their forefathers. The result is a huge leap forward and a commendable, fully-realized end product. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait four years for the next one.
Tracks to check: “Still Reborn,” “Redemption Through Blood,” and “Seven Stars Unseen”