The fact that Artillery is still going always surprises me on some level. Though they were an integral part of the original thrash wave in the 80s, these once great Danes were always overshadowed by their American and German counterparts, never receiving their share of respect and fame despite the strength of albums like Fear of Tomorrow and By Inheritance. After taking off much of the time between 1991 and 2008, they reformed and have been relatively productive over the past 10 years. Though none of the second era albums held a candle to their early works, the core of the Artillery sound was always there thanks to the guitar-work of the Stützer brothers who founded the band. The Face of Fear is their sixth album since reforming and the first to take a markedly different approach. Instead of the traditional first wave thrash the band always specialized in, this is far more melodic and way less speedy. In fact, it has much more in common with power and traditional metal than thrash. This trend has been developing over the years, but the evolution is steep here, and that presents some problems.
One of the few songs that’s readily identifiable as Artillery is the opening title track; its familiar Stützer-core riffing style a nostalgic joy. It’s aggressive and sounds like it could have fit on By Inheritance. It’s not what I would call essential for the band or the genre, but it’s enjoyable and well in line with what one expects from the semi-legendary band. “Crossroads to Conspiracy” is fairly fast and reasonably furious, but reminds me more of Onslaught‘s In Search for Sanity era due to the similarities between vocalist Michael Bastholm Dahl and Steve Grimmet (Grim Reaper, ex-Onslaught). “Sworn Utopia” is the album standout with ripping guitar-work and olde school thrashing fury, but after that the album bogs down into a run of mid-tempo, anthemic cuts that sound more like Dream Evil than Artillery, especially “New Rage” and “Thirst for the Worst.”
“Through the Ages of Atrocity” incorporates hard rock and hair metal elements, at times cutting close to 80s AC/DC. While it’s not bad, it’s miles away from what I come to an Artillery album hoping to hear. Round things out with an uninspired, Dokken-esque power ballad (“Pain”) and a short, rather pointless instrumental (“Under Water”) and you have an album with a serious identity crisis. It’s also a surprisingly short one, at barely 35 minutes1. In this case, less is indeed more.
While Morten and Michael Stützer are the only original members, they’d managed to keep enough of the classic sound intact up until now. Aside from a few thrash flare ups, mostly confined to the album’s first-half, this is a very melodic album striving for more accessibility than ever before. Rather than having the riffs lead the way, the soaring pipes of Michael Bastholm Dahl are the focus now. He’s a fine vocalist and he sounds powerful on the material, but few of the songs really grab me and demand replay despite his full-throated contributions. It often feels like the band is trying to work in an unfamiliar medium and are unsure exactly how best to proceed. Thrash here, power metal there, it’s quite disjointed. Despite a few decent moments, things feel pieced together and scattershot with too many new elements being shoehorned into a watered down thrash sound.
I haven’t been blown away by an Artillery album in decades, but I always found something to like. The Face of Fear is the first release I know I won’t be coming back to, even to cull tracks for a playlist. It’s not terrible, it’s just not the band I loved, and the new direction doesn’t convince me that I need to hear more of it. The cannons haven’t gone silent, but they aren’t firing accurately anymore. 2018 will not be going down in the books as a great time for thrash.