At 30 plus years and 11 studio albums of original material in, it’s almost entirely redundant at this point to ramble on explaining what a death metal institution Vader have become. I could use phrases like “legends” and “titans of the genre” but realistically you probably already know exactly who Vader are, which should give you some idea as to what to expect from their latest release, The Empire. These Poles have spent the last two decades plying their no-frills brand of old-school death metal, a tact which has served them well in recent years. While I enjoyed previous offering, Tibi Et Igni in all of its fiery glory, I felt like it was treading water, especially in comparison to the dynamic Welcome to the Morbid Reich. In an effort to avoid consistency devolving into redundancy, Vader have opted to galvanize The Empire with the ever-present thrash that propels their classic sound. The results are a lot of fun. I love Vader, so if you’re at all interested in following me awkwardly avoid blathering on about how great they are, and actually offer objectivity, then read on. Careful, don’t trip on the hyperbole.
Although the song structures are still somewhat similar to the previous album, a reminiscence of the Litany years hangs in the air, which is certainly no bad thing. Historically, one of my biggest issues has been the unbalanced pacing on albums – the more intense material often clustered together. This time around, Vader cannily combat the potential for fatigue by meting out the heavier cuts in well distributed fits; this serves to accentuate the record’s alternating tempos, keeping each track as potent as possible. The Empire still has all the tropes you’ve come to expect: infinitely memorable riffs, blasting drums and Peter’s eternally emphysemic vocals, rasping away with as much abandon as ever. It’s soon apparent that when the band goes for speed, they opt for a more focused thrash attack, when “Angels of Steel” kicks in, offering some of the best riffs this side of 1986.
“Tempest” and particularly “Gravity” blast in and out, the latter featuring a huge neck-cracking chug at its close, which will no doubt keep my fictional chiropractor in the finery he has become accustomed to. Conversely, “Iron Reign,” possibly the slowest cut, has some guitar lines which wouldn’t be out of place on any early Grave Digger release, cementing The Empire’s adherence to a more mid-paced riff. The measured approach might come as a disappointment to those counterculture-vultures out there who are looking forward to the usual hyperkinesis, but it should come as no surprise to those who made the effort to pick up the Iron Times EP and heard the pre-release of “Prayer To the God of War” with its more deliberate crunch.
Although in no way a detraction from the songs, I did find myself wondering what extra impact they might have, had the guitar tone followed suit from previous releases and carried a little more weight. The mix here is noticeably thinner, tipping a hat to the band’s speed metal roots. The Empire’s close is heralded by the great “Send Me Back to Hell”, one of the band’s catchiest and most sinister anthems to date with relative newcomer, Spider, ripping through another of the album’s notably melodic solos. I’ve always enjoyed the high voltage, albeit largely faceless, lead guitars that feature on Vader’s records, but these just might be the band’s most memorable.
The Empire is rife with indelible and, dare I say it, accessible death-thrash, and although it’s stripped back in comparison to older material, I suspect I’ll still be enjoying this come the new year. As a metal fan in particular, I think it’s easy to undervalue the true nature of consistency; bands like Slayer have ruined the concept of a reliable standard by churning out increasingly banal facsimiles of their own glory days for the last 25 years, whereas Vader have built a reputation on well-honed, utilitarian quality. At this point, not deviating from a definitive sound feels like a creative choice rather than a dearth of ideas, and this album will fit neatly into one of metal’s strongest back catalogs. The Empire demands its pound of flesh – and this war machine keeps turning.