Blood Stronghold – Spectres of Bloodshed Review

Run DMC and Aerosmith. The Ramones and Lemmy Kilmister. Dillinger Escape Plan and Mike Patton. El-P and Killer Mike from Run the Jewels. Hell, even Queen and David Bowie. Collaborations in music (and metal) have been around since you were a tyke on your grandpappy’s arthritic knee. When they work, differing artists can bring out the best in each other, highlighting each other’s strengths, and masking their weaknesses. Blood Stronghold follows in this grand tradition: an international amalgamation of Australia’s Nightwolf (from Runespell) and veteran Polish drummer Krew (from numerous projects I honestly haven’t of). Blood Stronghold’s style is very much a mix between 90’s fuzzed-out Burzum and lo-fi Ruins of Beverast. The tempo is mid-paced, blast beats are kept to a minimum, Nightwolf rasps rather than growls, and the cumulative effect is a black metal album that eschews naked ferocity and aggression for a more somber and mournful experience. Spectres of Bloodshed, the band’s third release, follows 2017’s The Triumph of Wolfish Destiny. Is this strange combo going to go down as one of the more interesting releases of 2020?

Spectres of Bloodshed succeeds admirably in parts, but some crucial stumbling blocks along the way prevent it from being a journey worth recommending. Where Blood Stronghold is noticeably different from Runespell is that the tracks are far more disciplined. We’ll never know for sure, but I suspect this is Krew’s influence. Nightwolf has an instinct for creating interesting sonic landscapes. He also has the tendency of meandering gamely into a no-man’s land of drone and atmoblack. Krew appears to rein in Nightwolf’s worst instincts and adds much-needed impetus and drive to the material, almost single-handedly forcing Blood Stronghold’s best tracks along. “Crowned Virtue” and “Unbowed Wolves” are both solid, unpredictable songs with catchy melodies, driven by unflashy, but compelling drumming. They are a great example of a duo bringing out the best in each other.

The production, unfortunately, brings out the best in neither. It’s amateurish, and really sets Spectres of Bloodshed back. I’ve written before that a lo-fi aesthetic, in the right hands, can be a respectable stylistic choice, adding to the mood of an album. Here, however, it’s a noticeable detraction, particularly with drums that sound like a bunch of children’s sand buckets being struck with plastic swords. Not only is the noise distracting and odd, it’s featured at the front of the mix, making it virtually impossible to ignore. The snare, in particular, is so over-emphasized yet hollow that it manages the impressive task of being simultaneously irritating and limp at the same time. This is not Krew’s fault: he’s a talented, forceful drummer, but he needs some proper mastering to highlight his skills.

Watching middle-of-the-pack runners complete a marathon is not particularly exciting. Essentially, you’re witnessing people put an awful lot of effort into moving at consistent but pedestrian pace. Spectres is plagued by the same issue. The album shuffles along amiably, but the listener is left yearning for something to unshackle itself and really sprint off. Sadly, this hardly happens. “From the Depths of the Veles Sea” and “Forests Dark Eyes” maintain the same cadence throughout their run times, with little change in tempo or dynamics. They’re not bad songs, they just don’t have an awful lot of variety. This does little for memorability or replay value, and they’re indicative of the album as a whole.

Spectres of Bloodshed is ultimately disappointing because there is some solid material here, but it is hobbled by pedestrian pacing and an unconscionably bad production job. While this collaboration is certainly better than the solo project of its lead guitarist, Nightwolf’s unfocused tendencies still predominate. This results in an album that is way too “atmo” and not enough “black,” which is strange for something with such a ferocious title. Spectres isn’t a weird disaster, like Paul McCartney and Nirvana. It’s just a bit bland. For the most metal collaboration of 2020, your best bet is still Spectral Lore/Mare Cognitum.

Rating: 2.0/5.0
DR: 5 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Nebular Carcoma Records and Satanik Requiem
Websites: Too kvlt for the internet
Releases Worldwide: July 2nd, 2020

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