“War… war never changes.”
Those iconic words of Fallout’s intro might as well have been talking about war metal. While I love the scorched-earth pummeling of bands like Revenge and Bestial Warlust, I’ll be the first to admit the genre isn’t exactly known for its variety and memorability. To me the style needs some musicality to balance out the brutality, otherwise, I’d just be blasting Tetragrammacide all day and sending my entire paycheck to Hells Headbangers. Fortunately, this was something New Zealand quartet Heresiarch understood pretty well. Specifically on 2014’s Wælwulf EP, which expanded on 2011’s Hammer of Intransigence EP by offering plenty of tempo shifts and distinct riffs while serving up shovelfuls of sonic brutality. Nine years since their formation, will debut full-length Death Ordinance continue this riotous crusade or fall face first into a pool of noisy muck? Hop on the turret and affix your bayonets, it’s about to get brutal.
Quick vocab lesson: “heresiarch” refers to “the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect.” Yet on Ordinance, Heresiarch betray that namesake by sticking pretty closely to the murky blackened death peddled by many other bands in this style, particularly country-mates Diocletian. As expected there’s plenty of blastbeats, battering riffs, and überguttural roars across Ordinance’s 44 minutes. Everything here feels like it’s designed to crush, from the bassy and dense mix to the gargantuan guitars that sound like they require tremendous energy just to shift a single chord. The tone is immense and ragged, conveying images of exploding shrapnel and trench warfare. Likewise, the riffs themselves are chaotic, violent, and noisy, remaining just discernible enough to actually be heard and appreciated.
Opener “Consecrating Fire” sets the tone from the start with slow trudging riffs that later give way to marching snare hits and layered roaring. At four minutes it’s a bit long for what’s essentially a mood-setting intro, but that’s almost forgiven with follow-up “Storming Upon Knaves.” The album’s first taste of true war metal blasting, “Storming” feels familiar yet exciting as it piles power chords atop power chords before syncing up all instruments in a rapid chug that sounds like a tank engine revving to life. Later tracks punctuate their brutality with a bit more character. Early highlight “Ruination” strides forth on a confident ironclad riff that invokes images of an encroaching army, while “Iron Harvest” and “Righteous Upsurgence” feature soaring tremolos that sound like metal girders being twisted apart.
Just like Wælwulf, Ordinance varies its tempo just enough to add welcome variety. “The Yoke” closes out the record’s first half with marching beats and sludgy guitars, while aforementioned “Harvest” evolves from a stomping tempo to frantic bashing to a delightfully groovy march. Closer “Desert of Ash” is outright doom metal, layering its battle-worn chords with a weary, echoing melody that evokes the smoldering glory of Bolt Thrower. If there’s any complaint to be had with Ordinance, it’s that these moments don’t come often enough. A bit too much of the album’s runtime feels bloated with the same churning guitars that offer little chromatic interest and instead serve merely to pummel. It’s the classic war metal dilemma: the style aims to be noisy and aggressive, but too much of that results in monotony. Ordinance never quite steps over that line completely, but a few more notable riffs like those in “Ruination” could have really elevated Heresiarch above the pack.
Fortunately, the performances sound menacing and commanding, particularly vocalist “N.H.” who alternately screams and roars with maniacal conviction. Likewise, the occasional wild solo and disjointed chug convey vivid images of flailing hand-to-hand combat. At the end of the day, Ordinance feels like a record made by war metal fans for war metal fans, a record that offers plenty of barbaric aggression but is crafted with enough structure and memorability to avoid being a slog. While it won’t be dethroning the bigger names in the style anytime soon, it will certainly fuck your face off and sit nicely alongside your collection of Diocletian and Axis of Advance CDs. Sometimes, maybe war doesn’t need to change.