Sophomore albums bring much trepidation. Bands will try to recreate what worked about the first release on a shorter time scale and with less fresh inspiration, and it often falls flat. We don’t call it the sophomore slump without reason. With this in mind, significant changes in style can be cause for celebration and alarm in equal quantity. High Fighter’s debut album Scars & Crosses was a largely laid back affair, according to a cursory listen from yours truly, featuring groovy stoner metal, played at a mid-tempo, with its most distinguishing feature being vocalist Mona Miluski and her sardonic vocal style. Well, clearly High Fighter are coming down from their high and focusing on the fighter, because Champain is anything but laid back. The Germans are ready to get angry.
Opener “Before I Disappear” relays this news subtly at first, with hazy guitars slowly building towards thundering sludge riffs. The new, nasty edge of grime on High Fighter’s sound is evident from Miluski splitting half her time between her acerbic cleans and her excellent, ragged screams, which lean closer to black metal than sludge shouting. Indeed, the frantic “Shine Equal Dark” features blackened tremolo riffs and no clean vocals at all. There is a sense of urgency to these tracks, the speed regularly turned up from mid-pace to a headlong gallop, with centerpiece “Another Cure” a perfect showcase of the band’s ability to contrast groovy riffs and unstoppable stampedes to great effect. When the stoner haze intro suddenly drops away and the guitars switch to a relentless whipping, it’s one of many heart-stopping moments across the record.
It’s that contrast that makes Champain such a great album. It allows the band to play with different moods, pulling out the rug from beneath your feet, setting walls of doom opposite adrenaline-drenched furor. When the mood tunes down to ominous, it’s all the more so for the chaos before and after. When High Fighter finally unleash the beast in full force it’s that much more satisfying for being held back before. Drummer Thomas Wildelau deserves special mention as the orchestrator of this contradistinction, with his ability to switch seamlessly from mid-pace groove to blitzkrieg assault at the drop of a hat. But none of the performances here disappoint. Miluski is in form with both her cleans and dirties, the former infused with a sardonic mid-tone and occasional Joplinesque drawl, the latter an impressively ragged screech that serves to slather grime and filth all over the terrain like the hasty cover-up of a trash dump murder scene. Burning Gloom, whom I favorably reviewed here a few weeks ago, featured her as a guest musician for her screams, and on Champain she confidently shows why she was the right choice.
When I have to look for flaws as hard as I have to do here, it makes me almost unwilling to list them at all. Even the production, often a sticking point, does not give me pause; it’s heavy and gets right in your face but it has good clarity and tone. Mayhap Miluski could have used a nod down on the volume knob, the bass perhaps a nod up, but it’s never a sore point in the least. The guitar tone is grand, ominous, and has a satisfactory layer of southern dirt, often overdriven on solos. Really, the only thing I could count is that the last third of the album is a microscopic dip down compared to the rest of the album, as it’s not entirely as memorable as everything that comes before.
But to hell with such nitpickery. High Fighter have beaten the sophomore slump in triumphant fashion, establishing a tectonic shift in their sound to unleash an album that leaves you feeling tight in the chest, out of breath, and eager to spin it again. Cleverly contrasting moods and tempos strengthen each other in every song, bringing about an addictive cycle of anticipation and release, tension and explosion, threat and action. With the diverse vocal approach and eclectic drumming as its sword and shield, Champain charges into battle at full tilt, its conquest a place among the best sludge albums we’re likely to hear this year.