Dark Zodiak – Ophiuchus Review

I’m not a huge thrash fan. Part of the reason is that I’m less than 50 years old and therefore missed the genre’s heyday, and part of it is an understanding that the genre peaked musically with Rust in Peace and isn’t about to dominate the metal scene again. That being said, I deeply love Sodom’s M-16. In some sense, I think thrash itself is about the Vietnam war, and M-16’s stark portrayal of the ugliness of that internecine and pointless conflict from the perspective of a soldier embedded in it really hits home. The fact that M-16 was released on the eve of the United States’ charge into another endless and dehumanizing execution of imperial force in Iraq only reinforces its resonance. But even beyond that, M-16 has a special place in my journey into metal; hearing it at thirteen or fourteen years old was my introduction to German thrash. Sodom and Kreator minted the sound and a scene that Dark Zodiak now inherit, and the quintet are doing their damnedest to keep Teutonic thrash alive and arresting.

Dark Zodiak borrow bits of the chunky, militaristic rhythms of Sodom, the scratchy grooves of Kreator and the progressive wanderings of Metallica. The push into heavier death-thrash territory is almost entirely due to a grotesque performance from vocalist Simone Schwarz, who commands the record with guttural roars, dry rasps, sinister narration, and even the occasional pig squeal. In the records’ snappiest cut, “From Thrash Till Death,” Schwarz drops a squeal each time the band change tempo, punctuating a mid-song breakdown that nods to brutal death metal. Double-tracked on “Invisible Apocalypse,” Schwarz musters the nastiness of Duncan Bentley (Vulvodynia) or Mallika Sundaramurthy (Abnormality) with the clarity of Mikael Stanne (Dark Tranquillity).

That combination drives home Ophiuchus’ lyrics, which prove both a strength and a stumbling block. Dark Zodiak follow that Sodom tradition of political and social commentary, with about half of Ophiuchus tackling the political and personal response to the coronavirus pandemic. “Invisible Apocalypse” and “2020 A.D.” prove the most pointed, and despite their sharp criticism of political failures project a genuinely hopeful and humanistic picture of the individual and societal response. My favorite track, “Humor” extols the virtue of humor as a “gentile weapon” to challenge authority and bond with other people, going so far as to include clips of the band laughing hysterically. While the sentiments and intelligence of Ophiuchus’ lyrics resonate with me and make me genuinely like the band, their delivery can be a little bit on-the-nose. I certainly appreciate a simple point made simply, but these lyrics often come off as clunky and didactic. What’s more, the few tracks on Ophiuchus that feel like they were written more than a year ago (the title track and “Destroy Destruction”) feature more abstract lyrics that are far less interesting and could have come from a different album entirely.

Lyrical content aside, Ophiuchus remains an enjoyable mid-paced thrash record. “Ophiuchus” provides a great centerpiece, featuring standout performances from every band member. Schwarz gets to show off her full range of talents and bassist Steffi Bergmann – whose performance is outshined on the record only by Schwarz – gets a particular spotlight in the intro and a full-on Metallica solo section. Bergmann’s lively and melodic playing provides a complex backdrop for Charly Gak’s uncanny Kirk Hammett impression. I just wish every song pulled the bands’ talents together as well as “Ophiuchus” does. Too much of the record’s B-side falls into predictable grooves and eschews the band’s adventurous side, resulting in an album that feels a good fifteen minutes too long.

Ophiuchus is a hard record to score. I’ve really enjoyed my time with the album and find the unabashedly old-school, DIY band incredibly endearing. It’s an album that despite its harshness projects a real warmth and friendliness. Each time I hear it I come away thinking that Dark Zodiak would be cool people to just hang out with. But Ophiuchus is a flawed record, one that I think is a better expression of the band’s politics and outlook than their musical ambitions. I’d like to hear a record that better expresses these simultaneously and succinctly, as a classic like M-16 does, and I believe Dark Zodiak are more than capable of making one. Ophiuchus just isn’t it.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Self-released
Websites: darkzodiak.bandcamp.com | dark-zodiak.net | facebook.com/darkzodiak
Releases Worldwide: January 30th, 2021

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