There are several unassailable truths in heavy metal. A brutal death metal concert will always smell like garbage and unwashed socks. The wait for a new Necrophagist album will always be the metal blogosphere’s running joke. And when a band experiences some commercial and critical success after employing a fresh sound, you can bet your Ghost buttplug there will be a slew of imitators there to jump on the bandwagon and catch whatever stray dollars they can. Case in point: Ketzer’s Starless, the buck-toothed, glue-huffing cousin of Tribulation’s 2015 hit The Children of the Night.
It’s even more disconcerting because Ketzer weren’t always second-rate imitators. Engrishy title aside, 2009 debut Satan’s Boundaries Unchained was top-tier black-thrash in the vein of fellow Germans Desaster and Nocturnal – ferocious, melodic, and containing one of the most destructive riffs ever (0:44 in the title track, for those curious). 2012 follow-up Endzeit Metropolis was a step down with awkward start-stop rhythms and generally shittier riffs, but it was still no indication for what Starless would bring.
Now to be clear, this album doesn’t automatically fail because it tries to sound like Tribulation. Starless fails because it utterly lacks both inspiration and quality ideas. Take the opening title track: with a bland occult riff and a simple rock n’ roll beat, the song leads into a chorus that makes prominent use of the track title, delivered via halfhearted rasps that are a far cry from the spitting venom of Unchained. Later numbers feature less conviction and even some blatantly ripped-off ideas. “White Eyes” begins with a riff that sounds eerily similar to Children’s “Melancholia,” while “When Milk Runs Dry” attempts to drum up atmosphere with its acoustic opening before transitioning to classic metal chugs and bland waltzy riffs, the likes of which reappear all too frequently throughout Starless’s 46-minute runtime.
Aside from the overall lifelessness, the album is marred by an awkward flow. After bursting right in with the title track, things slow down with an extended intro on aforementioned “Milk,” pick up again with the surprisingly catchy and upbeat “Godface,” and slow down again with the cleanly picked opening of “Count to Ten.” Rinse and repeat this scattershot pace for the remaining six tracks, two of which are minute-long instrumentals which contribute nothing other than bumping up the average DR score. Starless’s greatest atrocity, however, is the 11-minute “Shaman’s Dance,” an insufferable hodgepodge of exhausted waltzing riffs and acoustic moments that go absolutely nowhere.
Other than a DR that fluctuates wildly from track to track, things are fine production-wise. The low-end feels fairly prominent, with thumpy drums and a decent bass presence. The guitar tone is a bit clean and flimsy, but that’s fitting considering these riffs are about as potent as a wet napkin. Admittedly, the guitars still pull some decent moments: aforementioned “Godface” features a genuinely fun main lead that sounds vaguely like something from an old Sega Genesis game, and instrumental closer “Limbo” features slide guitar melodies that feel like getting tickled by your weird uncle – try as you might, you can’t help but enjoy it just a little bit.
Overall however, Starless is a failure. Nothing about this album sounds inspired, it’s utterly bereft of memorability and good ideas, and rather than conjuring images of Nosferatu creeping around a candlelit castle, I picture tired record label executives witnessing the fanfare that Children of the Night received and asking ‘why don’t we have a band like this?’ Whether or not that was actually the case is a moot point. Sure, it’s not a blatant ripoff of that album, but the parallels are obvious, as is the lack of quality. While there are some decent moments, overall this is a record I would not recommend to anyone, something I simply want to purge from both my library and my memory and never listen to again. Oh, and letlive. did that album artwork better.