It’s been 36 years since an upstart British band called Grim Reaper released See You in Hell. It wasn’t the greatest album, but there was a certain charm about the band that made that album, and the follow-up Fear no Evil, stick in many playlists back in the day. That charm was due in no small part to singer Steve Grimmett. Steve’s been through hell and back over the last couple of years, first losing part of his leg a couple years ago and then having his brother pass away. But he’s back now, with Steve Grimmett’s Grim Reaper, and At the Gates is the successor to 2016’s tepid Walking in the Shadows. While the olde amongst us may crave the days when Grim Reaper reached the lofty heights of respectability, the realists among us simply hope this new iteration doesn’t fall flat on its face.
“At the Gates” seems to be directed lyrically at Grimmett’s recent spate of bad luck. “I’m at the gates, of hell, standing here, screaming,” he intones in his classic slightly-raspy style. He and Grim Reaper may be at the gates, but they’re determined not to go down without a fight. And even though chief olden-times songwriter/guitarist Nick Bowcott hasn’t been part of the band since forever, the song manages to sound like a modern, stripped-down take on the band’s early work. Meaning, it’s a solid yet unspectacular number. Much improved is “Venom,” with its riff that sounds like a down-tuned version of Judas Priest’s “Steeler.” It’s hard-rocking, with the usual cheesy metal lyrics we all love. It’s also the first song where a bit of a problem is exposed: Grimmett has an unpredictably hard time hitting some notes. More on that to follow.
This is Grim Reaper’s first album with bassist Julian Hill and drummer Mark Pullin, although they’ve been together for a few years. They hold up the rhythm in capable fashion. Ian Nash pulls off some stylish solos, but dynamically, as they’ve always been, Grim Reaper have similar songwriting variety as AC/DC or Amon Amarth. Seven of the eleven songs feature a slight variation on the same riff as “Venom.” It’s a cool riff, but it results in the same song seven times with little variety. Taken in smaller doses, like “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and “Only When I Sleep,” these are indeed head-bobbers, but they tend to blend into each other with repeat listens. There’s a certain word we aren’t allowed to use in these hallowed Halls, but it’s exactly what this album is. You can figure it out yourselves.
Production is well-balanced. At the Gates sounds both retro and modern at the same time, and pleases my ears. “Rush” might be the best-sounding (and most interesting) track on the album, and the production highlights what it needs to when it should. A compelling intro and riff are augmented by sweet guitar tone, while the rhythm section rumbles along beautifully. And Grimmett’s voice is in prime condition, which can’t be said on a few other songs. At first, when he tries to hit some high notes in “Venom,” I jotted down “can’t hit the highs.” Turns out he can, though, and does on “Rush” as well as a couple of other songs. Puzzling, unless perhaps he was a little tired or under the weather when recording a few tracks. When he’s on he sounds as superb as he did in 1983, but too often he sounds tired and strained, making for some wince-inducing moments.
Repetitious riffs and tired vocal moments aside, Steve Grimmett’s Grim Reaper have released an album that’s ever so slightly stronger than Walking in the Shadows. I can pick a handful of tunes from At the Gates that I’m more than happy to toss into a playlist, and that’s better than I expected. This album might not attract more fans to the Grim Reaper fold, but those of you who still lovingly caress your See You In Hell cassettes should give this one a listen or two – you just might be surprised.
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Dissonance Productions
Websites: stevegrimmettsgrimreaper.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/grimreaperofficial
Releases Worldwide: October 11th, 2019