With that technicolor cover and macho album title, First Strike makes its presence and intentions clear from the get go. Or so you’d think, but you’d be wrong—this is a melodic thrash metal band we’re talking about here. If you never liked and never will like, uh, “melodic thrash metal,” Ketos won’t change your mind on the subject and you can feel free to scroll right down to the comments and tell everybody to listen to some vomit-inducing folk-power-black album on bandcamp. It’s your loss, since First Strike is a great example of “melodic thrash metal” passing both the taste test and sniff test—it’s a good album from a band with some serious chops.
Ketos have riffs. First Strike isn’t based on the perceived strength of catchy choruses (of which there are many) or on sheer angst (of which there is a healthy amount), but on those riffs. “Escape the Chains”1 opens with a good one, and the bands axe-slingers rarely fail to deliver riffs and leads in the style of “thrash” luminaries like Killswitch Engage and Trivium, though too often at an unrushed pace. That pace is surprising, since the band’s axe-wielders dish out some speedy solos in “Escape the Chains” and prove exemplary throughout First Strike. If there’s one reason to listen to the album it’s the tightness of the guitar performances.
Tuned as they are, those performances are at times let down by the rest of the equation here. The drumming on First Strike feels too conservative, as if written to make up for not being able to quite keep up with the guitarists, and falls too often into relatively simple rock beats. And then there’s the fact that Ketos are a “melodic thrash” band, and therefore stick to the program of that ersatz genre tag; clean verses that wince with melodrama; predictable rock songwriting; toughness that’s all too performative; gauged earlobes.2 But then again, the vocal parts here are nearly as well-performed as the guitars, and the band can write lyrics with angst that’s directed and substantial. “Harmacist” focuses its anger on crooked doctors and the opioid epidemic, a topic serious enough to make up for the all-too-expected harsh verse/clean chorus dichotomy.
Remember when you air-guitared and desk-chair-spun your way through Shogun as it flowed like sweet ambrosia through some jank internet radio platform in 2009?3 Ketos revive that feeling just a bit but are never as compelling as the classics, and it’s not just due to nostalgia. Ten years ago, First Strike might have gained them a good foothold in the scene based on guitar work and slick production, but it’s hard to see them going too far with these songs. The album lacks ambition, and though the band sound earnest in their angst, the level of polish to these songs and the lack of an overarching theme makes First Strike feel constructed rather than created. Listening to it is a little bit like going to your friend’s house in fifth grade and seeing a glued-in-place Lego Millennium Falcon on their bedroom shelf. Sure it’s cool, but wouldn’t it be a lot more fun if you made whatever you wanted from it rather than just what the instructions told you to?
Some bands do “melodic thrash” well enough to almost make you forget that it’s actually ██████. Ketos aren’t one of them, but they at least bring the riffs. If you, like I, grew weary of the style long ago, I can’t quite recommend the album. But if you can bear the cringier terms of the equation, First Strike might be the ballsy, riff-centered melodic thrash record you’ve been waiting for. The sad fact is that, even though First Strike is a good album, it’s still tied by the constraints of its style, and I’m simply too brutal, trve, cavernous, dissonant, post-, hyper-intelligent, bench-pressingly spectacular4, genitally magnificent, etc. to care for such things.