Abbath needs no introduction, but Outstrider does. In the three years after his well-received eponymous solo debut dropped, Abbath has replaced his entire band and recorded a new record, which comes to us in the form of Outstrider. Predictably, this does little but change the window dressing of the record, as Abbath dominates the proceedings here as before, both visually and musically. Outstrider feels even more like an Abbath record than Abbath did, in the sense that both Creature (ex-drums) and King ov Hell (ex-bass) had musical personalities distinctive and large enough to not be dwarfed by Abbath, frequently pushing themselves to the foreground. This was no surprise from King ov Hell, who had his own project with Shagrath (Ov Hell) and wrote material for Gorgorth’s aggressive middle period. Creature was a pleasant surprise, bringing the intensity and complexity of his Benighted performances to a new genre. On Outstrider, by contrast, everyone sounds like they exist to give legs to Abbath’s ideas and make them run; the band name has never been more fitting. This is not to denigrate the performances of new bassist Mia Wallace1 or new drummer Ukri Suvilehto, who are both great talents and turn in professional and convincing performances.
Choosing “Harvest Pyre” as a lead off single was the safest bet imaginable. It’s classic Abbath, a confident and swift mid-paced stomp that worms its way into your head and refuses to leave. The song is played at exactly the tempo Abbath sounds most comfortable in, and it keeps the energy and riffs flowing exactly as we’d hoped. Suvilehto finds a great groove and stays in the pocket, while Wallace bolsters the low-end without the creative flourishes of King ov Hell. Slow burning opener “Calm in Ire (Of Hurricane)” leans heavily on the rock elements of Abbath’s sound, and sounds a lot like I, which I like. The ending riff is phenomenal, and the string bends near the beginning are not just heard but felt, creating emotion with simplicity like the best blues. Penultimate number “Hecate” is one of Abbath’s smartest mergers of rock n’ roll and black metal, combining the riffing of All Shall Fall and At the Heart of Winter with some pure blues-rock licks made frigid by Abbath’s seemingly innate knack for the genre. It’s seriously groovy black metal, but not in the Glorior Belli mold – it’s truly Abbath’s own.
With the above in mind, I can’t bring myself to like Outstrider as much as Abbath. “Land of Khem” seems to lack direction, sounding like a hodgepodge of good riffs that never figures out where it’s going or what great thing it’s going to do when it gets there. This is a salient issue because much of Abbath’s work builds to a climax, an unforgettable moment of bombast, and/or a huge hook. I can still remember plenty of material from Abbath, but “Land of Khem” eludes me. The faster material here – notably “Bridge of Spasms” and “The Artifex” – don’t hold up nearly as well as “Ashes of the Damned” did. While “The Artifex” has a good chorus that effectively reworks that “burn you all” riff from “Hordes of War,” there is a shortage of memorable moments between those two tracks. Worse still, they come after the fantastic opening track, are consecutive, and then are dwarfed by “Harvest Pyre” immediately after.
And yet, I still enjoy all the songs on Outstrider. Abbath hasn’t lost his icy touch, ran out of ideas, or suffered the dreaded sophomore slump. Yes, Outstrider is a step down from Abbath, but to call it a slump is to exaggerate the issue; it’s merely the second-best Abbath solo record – unless we count I as an Abbath solo record, in which case Outstrider is firmly in third. Despite my criticisms, there’s a lot to like here – I just wish I could have found more to love. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but if they were, it speaks more to the overall quality of Abbath’s oeuvre than anything. Outstrider is one of those peculiar records where it’s not a failure by any stretch, but it’s not a rousing victory either. It won’t harm Abbath’s legacy whatsoever, but it will play a relatively small part in it. Outstrider sees a legendary artist in the annals of metal coming out with a good record. It’s impossible to be disappointed that Outstrider exists, but I did find myself longing for more of what the best material on it had to offer.