The heavy metal scene has spent some time in recent years navel gazing. With every new “wave” that crawls out of the scene’s belly button, there’s one common trait: they’re fundamentally referential. Be it re-thrash, retro Swedish death, retro doom (omg staaahp), and even orthodox black metal, these waves aren’t about doing something new, they’re about making backward-looking music, with the aim of touching the essence of something perceived to be lost. Unfortunately, things that haven’t been doing this in recent years are scenes everyone feels uncomfortable with (generally -core) and these get labelled “modern metal.” So when a band genuinely sounds modern, but isn’t -core, labeling gets hard. And let’s face the facts: Angry Metal Guys need to label, it’s the life blood of this blog and of the reviewing arm of the metal industry.
Trials‘ lucky third record—This Ruined World—poses a problem: it’s tough to label. It is at its core a modern thrash album—and I don’t mean -core, seriously—with few peers and little grounds for reference in 2015. And Trials has been growing into this for some time. While I enjoyed the debut album Witness to the Downfall, I was floored by 2013’s In the Shadow of Swords, which hit the #3 spot on my Top 10(ish) of 2013, and which still ranks as one of the best records I’ve heard in the last 5 years. So This Ruined World comes with a world of expectations.
Trials lives up to the challenge of my heightened expectations by delivering unexpected twists, while keeping an iron-clad fist clenched around the essence of their strength: vicious riffs, slick songwriting, and immense presence. This Ruined World distinguishes itself from the opening salvos through its unique production. Hardly a lo-fi production job, the album still sports a raw, trashy sound. The drums, with splashy symbols and a snare that borders on too loud and too raw, are the lynch pin on which fat (not just audible!) bass and grindy guitar tones rest. Vokillist (get it?) Mark Sugar’s screams add a frenzied layer on top of the whole thing. The best comparison in tone is The Great Southern Trendkill from Pantera; scrappy, raw, heavy and tough. Y’know, like it’s heavy metal or something.
The writing on this record isn’t a huge departure from In the Shadow of Swords, exactly, but there’s a sense of adventure and experimentation on This Ruined World that was not one of the defining features of its predecessor. While Trials is unmistakably a thrash band—with all the triplets, Testament riffs and palm muting that entails—the record is littered with sick riff after inventive lick, and the best part is that they enthrall and surprise. The lead (“Gremlins II”) by Ryan “Still the New Guy” Bruchert and Morbid Angel vibe in opener “Truth Defiled” offsets groove riffing and feeds into one of the coolest dual harmonies ever featured on a metal record (adorably entitled “Tango and Thrash”). “Don’t Believe the Word” features fantastic dissonance and groove and is simultaneously hooky and uncomfortable. The chorus (eh?) on “Beat the System to Death” rocks an inventive melody and a near punk rock intensity, while the verses blast out at 90 miles an hour. And the title track features the sickest Morbid Angel riff since Formulas Fatal to the Flesh on the chorus.
Trials isn’t all thrash riffs, though. As the commercials of my youth were always reminding me, every rocker has a soft side. This makes rare appearances, but I loved the Opeth-homage on “Inheritance,” the proggy bridge on “Blink of an Eye,” and Mark’s baritone croon litters tracks to great effect on tracks like “Digging My Own Grave” and “This Ruined World.” Unlike a lot of bands who fall into a formula of dropping cleans into the chorus, and screaming over verses, Trials never follows a mold, instead letting songs dictate the vocals. And the band’s melodic side goes hand-in-hand with an elite sense of melody that lands these guys with the Bay Area and Gothenburg greats, without ever feeling derivative.
For me, the biggest weakness is that this album could sound even better if it weren’t as loud as it is. Given the quality of the tone and sound, I’m not sure how having more room to breathe for the bass and drums would hurt This Ruined World. One can argue—as they do—that for their sound to work, they want the record loud and dense, but I disagree. Still, for what it is, the production on this record is good. I love the tone and the whole spectrum of how the instruments work together. The trashy sound gives the album a live feel that is a nice shift away from Industry Standards™, without delving into the DIY sound of un-tuned guitars and one-take vocal tracks that is increasingly popular in the underground.
As a total package This Ruined World is an excellent record. The songs on here are razor sharp, tightly edited, written to be dense, technical, and immense—and it’s the balance Trials strikes between chugging intensity, harmony, dissonance and a fine understanding of dynamics in all the right places which makes this album stand out. I don’t know if these guys are harbingers of a new wave of metal that’s unapologetically interested in cutting the bullshit and writing great songs, or if they’re just a fluke in a wave of stoned kids with bell bottoms and bad mustaches. But whatever they are, I think we should all take a moment to appreciate just how good This Ruined World is and how good Trials is getting.