As I write this, Halloween is fast approaching. For me, it’s a time of binging on bad horror movies, gorging myself on Starbursts, and watching girls make things slutty that I didn’t even know could be slutty. Yet those long shadows and that eerie October chill also make a great time to enjoy some good old-fashioned metal, even if by “old fashioned” I really mean a style which just emerged a few years ago. I’m talking about “blackened heavy metal” — the type pedaled by Barbarian, Midnight, and that Exoskelett album from a couple months back. Combining early 80s riffing with raspy vocals and a modern punch, this style isn’t a “wave” quite yet, but that doesn’t mean new bands aren’t clawing their way up from the underground.
Enter Vaultwraith. This Missouri quartet just released their Wrath of the Wraith demo last year before signing to Hells Headbangers for debut full-length Death Is Proof of Satan’s Power. As one might expect from artwork that seemingly depicts Abigail growing up and becoming the devil’s new sidepiece, Vaultwraith mainly take influence from the classic metal of King Diamond and Mercyful Fate, albeit with beefier guitars and a more modern production. Likewise, the “blackened” flair is primarily achieved by the raspy roars of vocalist/guitarist/general mastermind “The Warlock,” who also garnishes these eleven tracks with subtle symphonics and morbid choirs for a little extra ambiance.
It’s not a bad formula. Opener “The Vaultwraith” sets the stage with ambient sound effects of some dude opening a vault, before introducing a spooky melody that soon explodes into a quick speed metal gallop. Follow-up “Ravaged in the Crimson Mist” and late highlight “High Priestess of the Wolf Coven” stand out by slowing things to a swaggering stomp, fueled by riffs crunchier than a fistful of corn nuts. Warlock’s guitar chops further show on songs like banging thrasher “Infernal Realms Unfold,” while his colorful solos pepper the rest of Death with some delightful classic metal flair. See “Devilcraft,” whose swirling Maiden-esque leads screech high into the night sky like a wailing banshee. In addition to the aforementioned symphonics, Warlock also effectively conjures an evil atmosphere with ghastly chord progressions, often coupled with easing the tempo to a dreary dirge. Check closer “Skeletonized Malediction,” whose harrowing keyboards are underlaid by a driving bassline that rumbles like a Choo Choo train to hell.
Unfortunately, there are a few too many of these slower songs, particularly in Death’s second half. After some quick cuts early in the tracklist, this ultimately causes the album to feel like it runs out of steam at the end, an issue that late instrumental “Damsel in Disgust” attempts to rectify without success. Forty-eight minutes is also a bit long for this style, and the loud production sacrifices some of the atmosphere at the altar of guitar crunch. The biggest problem, however, is a bizarre vocal effect used throughout the record. Rather than just add a bit of reverb and be done with it, Vaultwraith instead employ a layered echo that makes it sound like a bunch of demons are repeating the lyrics out-of-sync with one another a fraction of a second after they’re initially uttered. It’s a weird and annoying effect that probably stems from having three vocalists in the lineup, and though I learned to cope after repeat listens, ultimately the vocal layering works about as well as trying to argue for a refund at your local Halloween Express.1
Still, for all my gripes I have to admit Vaultwraith may be onto something here. Moments like the slithering chorus harmonies of “Ravaged by the Crimson Mist” are a blast, as is the Motorhead-esque charge of “Devilcraft” and the theatrical melodies of “Manifest at Midnight.” The songwriting is simple without being overly predictable, the atmosphere is engrossing, and with repeat listens I was surprised by how many of these riffs had embedded themselves in my head. Though there are still some unanswered questions (Why is death proof of Satan’s power? Why are three vocalists needed? How long will it take our commenters to add unicorn horns to those demon horses on the cover?) ultimately the only one that matters is this: are you interested in a Midnight that’s less No Mercy for Mayhem and more Mercyful Fate? Then don’t leave this buried in the vault just yet.