It’s been a long and bitter journey. Fatigue clings to you like a drowning sailor; a debt accrued from the rancid marches and frigid mountains your troupe of brigands have had to push through. You stumble out from a forest that delighted in stymying your efforts to leave unscathed and come across a time-worn bridge that leads to a welcome sight — home. Before you can muster a cry of exultation a blood-curdling roar splits the silence and a gigantic blur of teeth and scales crashes down before you. A dragon now blocks your path. Your sword whistles out from its scabbard as you bark orders to the rest of your party to get into the formation but you can’t shake the feeling that your fate rests at the mercy of an uncaring god. Sweden’s Highrider is that god, and in one hand is their full-length debut, Roll for Initiative, and in the other is a 20-sided die that will decide whether success lurks on the horizon. Pray for a high score.
If you’re still confused as to what Highrider’s shtick is, let me spell it out for you: Dungeons and Dragons. “So what?” you snort, sword ‘n’ board fantasy is a well that metal bands have been drawing from for over 40 years, it hardly rates as anything novel. Yes, but Highrider offer some interesting variations that merit a second glance. Beyond elves and wizards are pulp influences pulled from 70s horror movies soundtracks, filtered through a classic doom prism that shares skin with Candlemass, The Gates of Slumber and Bloody Hammers. That describes half of the musical influences on the album, But what about the rest?
Were you expecting hardcore with elements of crossover thrash to be the answer? I certainly wasn’t, but that’s exactly what I got with opening track “Nihilist Lament.” Aside from the electric organ, the track is a fairly straightforward stomper that is elevated from indifference by some tasty lead guitar. “A Burial Scene” is a much better display of the band’s talents, the mosh-pit frenzy broken by pockets of candle-scented doom that gives it a strong dose of character. The head-on collision of genres on the record can at times resemble a brawl between Poison Idea and Deep Purple, a contrast that if nothing else gives the band something to hang their hat on. If there’s a point on Roll for Initiative where all the disparate influences coalesce into a perfect form then it’s on final track “The Rope and the Blade.” The slower, moodier pace suits the strained vocals while the crushing riffs had me thinking of Venom’s “Buried Alive” as covered by Cathedral.
While the inclusion of contrasting styles can lead to original compositions, their melding has to be cohesive else you’re left with what amounts to two different bands trying to shout over one another in a recording studio. Highrider at times gets the balance right but for the most part, their attempt to harmonize the hardcore and doom elements is crude, raising the suspicion that the songs were composed piecemeal over the years and then stapled together when the time came to release a full-length debut. This would be tolerable if it wasn’t for the album’s other major flaw: the hardcore bits just aren’t any good. The riffs are staid, the vocals are bland, and it feels at times that the band just aren’t putting their back into the music. By contrast, the doom bits are first-class, carrying the album with inventive and well-executed lead work. “Roll Dee Twenty” is a microcosm of the record as a whole: tepid hardcore thrashing for the first half and then a phenomenal and atmospheric latter half with spiraling solos and tight composition.
You have to sympathize with the plight that new bands have as they struggle to rise from the primordial soup of ignominy, hoping to affix themselves to fame before they slide back into the muck like diseased flesh sloughing from the bone. The weird intersection of genres certainly marks Highrider as a band willing to try something different, a necessary ingredient when trying to stand out from the rest of your contemporaries. But to succeed in future they’ll need to either improve their hardcore predilections and learn to write them into the music with grace, or sideline them and focus on the retro-doom that they manage to execute with aplomb. I feel like the band has it in them to craft a thrilling tale worth recounting over a flagon of mead, but for now, the dice roll hasn’t produced the number needed to pass the skill check.