“Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man.” It’s odd that a metal album calls to mind Genesis, but in this case it feels strangely appropriate. Even within genres, different bands occupy different niches. Some bands make music that’s tight, slick, and professional, some bands make music that sounds like a bunch of cavemen somehow acquired and learned to play modern instruments. True to their name, Italian trio Barbarian tend toward the latter. But lest you think that’s a slight against them, think again. Works like 2016’s Cult of the Empty Grave and 2014’s Faith Extinguisher were fun albums that showed the group playing what could best be described as blackened heavy metal, with big burly riffs accentuated by speed, thrash, and even pirate metal influences that brought to mind Cauldron Black Ram. Guitarist and vocalist “Borys Crossburn” (Children of Technology) has returned with a new bassist and drummer for fourth album To No God Shall I Kneel, and the result may be the band’s strongest work yet.
Barbarian sound like what would have happened if extreme vocals emerged much earlier in metal’s history. Their music is deceptively unique, essentially adding a blackened edge to an early 80s heavy metal sound. Celtic Frost deserves an obligatory mention, but more often this sounds like a faster, heavier, and more aggressive version of Savage Master or Cirith Ungol. Opener “Obtuse Metal” breaks right in with big meaty riffs, roars of the track title, and clambering drums that call to mind a Celtic warrior charging into battle. This is the type of music that puts hair on your chest1 and makes you want to don a leopard print loincloth. Mr. Crossburn only accentuates the burliness with a gruff and raspy roar that sounds like a hybrid of man and grizzly bear.
“Obtuse” is a basic yet solid start that offers little hint of just how good things are about to get. Second track “Birth and Death of Rish’Ah” accelerates into speed metal tempos before adding some “whoa-oh-oh” backing vocals and soaring melodies that call to mind Iron Maiden. The combination of harsh vocals and epic twirling leads seems like it shouldn’t work, but it works oh so fucking well. “Sheep Shall Obey” furthers the variety with a more extreme approach, surging forward on malevolent and mid-paced riffs. Yet the most unique song here is the closing title track. Driven by a plump bassline, the song marches along like an old Cirith Ungol track before building into a chorus of bellowing clean vocals. It’s a singalong of Manowar proportions and ends the album with a glorious bang.
From the harmonized leads of “The Old Worship of Pain” to the trilling speed metal riffs of “The Beast Is Unleashed,” Crossburn is a talented axeman who imbues No God with ample variety. Sadly not everything works. “Hope Annihilator” bookends itself with a melodic riff that’s possibly the best on the album, but it’s odd that it only comes at the very beginning and end of the song rather than being incorporated throughout. Likewise, at times the drums come across as a tad sloppy, though admittedly that only adds to the primal charm. Fortunately the production is suitably boisterous, with lively drums, clear leads, and guitars that roar like chainsaws. The bass guitar is suitably plump and occasionally rumbles on its own when the guitars drop out, a touch that makes things feel truly alive.
No God feels like it shouldn’t work as well as it does. On the surface Barbarian seem big, brawny, and basic, yet listening to the album in full reveals a band with surprising musical chops and a wonderful ear for variety. The tempos are diverse, the guitars offer everything from beefy riffs to sugary melodies, and the occasional use of clean vocals makes things even more fun. Beyond that, every song here is distinct and complements the next, and as such this album works even better as a whole. Barbarian add an extreme edge to early metal while pulling lovingly from it, making for a record that’s a chest-thumping good time and metal to its mighty core. This is the music of conquerors and warriors, music that bends genres to its will and kneels to no gods but the Gods of Metal. Hail and obey, bang your fukkin’ heads!