We’ve all been there. We’ve all strived to transcend weakness, to beat back the forces of oppression, to rip the fucking heart from the proverbial lion. Deströyer 666 use the motif of a wolf to convey this sense of power; fellow Australians Mongrel’s Cross use a dragon. Their 2012 debut The Sins of Aquarius was rife with such smoldering imagery, taking the Australian black thrash tapestry and soaking it in the grandiose swagger of Bathory’s Blood Fire Death. The result was both a personal favorite and one of the style’s most potent albums in recent years. Since then, Cross have only furthered their status as an underground secret. They’ve all but stopped touring, pared themselves down to a duo, and spent the last few years writing riffs that evoke images of a grand subterranean kingdom where religion has been slaughtered and self-empowerment reigns king. Six years after Sins, this kingdom has finally come into being with second full-length Psalter of the Royal Dragon Court.
And just like its predecessor, Psalter is a massive and triumphant album that’s different from the D666 clone you might expect. Cross’ formula is simple but effective: take mid-tempo marching riffs, alternate those with melodic riffing over blast beats, and throw in some swirling leads for good measure. There are obvious similarities to the stomping thrash of countrymates Assaulter, though the Bathory spirit is more pronounced here. Likewise, I hear parallels to Greek black metal acts like Kawir or Macabre Omen, while the Viking leads in songs like “Khara” remind me of Týr. The occasional use of subtle background synths only heightens the sense of scale. It all goes together like beer and corn nuts, and though Cross’ style is different from the breakneck blackened thrash typical of the Australian scene, that’s hardly a bad thing when the music is this good.
Songs like “Neurian Transformation” and opener “King of the Beasts” nail the formula early, with “Neurian” standing out for its catchy verse melody which slithers along like a serpentine dragon emerging from its lair. The combination of the crunchy marching riffs and melodic black metal portions are like that lion and dragon on the cover art fusing together into one giant superorganism that’s now striding over a smoldering countryside and burninating all the people in the thatched roof cottages. Cross sound downright regal in the way they ooze confidence and might, and things only get better with some interesting twists later in the runtime. “From Transylvania to Tunbridge Wells” climaxes with a sugary melody that sounds either like Iron Maiden or the epic bridge of a modern Kreator song, while “Derkesthai – Initiation (To See Clearly)” features a staccato thrash break which recalls Toxic Holocaust.
Yet while “Trail of the Serpent” mixes it up further with some peppy rhythms, these 8 tracks adhere to the same formula for the most part. Fortunately, guitarist and vocalist Grand Mongrel is skilled enough at writing riffs that even ideas with a similar feel are structurally different enough to keep one engaged. Instead, the biggest flaw lies with his vocals. Mr. Mongrel’s rasps don’t have anywhere near the power of the rest of the music, sounding more like a bedridden man with strep throat than the colossal dragon lord you’d expect. Moments of fiercer rasps suggest whoever is doing those may be better suited as the main vocalist. Fortunately, the vocals are less bothersome with repeat listens, and it’s hard to be too upset when the music is this powerful.
The production only augments this power, with a modern sound that’s roomy with a hint of rawness. The guitars are clear and dry, and the bass drums have a pleasant thunk. It all makes Psalter easy to enjoy in full, and though this isn’t as diverse an album as its predecessor, its same sense of grandeur and primordial strength have made it one of my favorite black metal records of the year. Cross have said they put substance over style, and Psalter‘s 48-minute parade of terrific riffs and leads are proof positive of that. At the same time, the vivid imagery this music invokes is sure to please fans of Bathory, Havukruunu, or anyone looking for an epic twist on the Australian black thrash sound. At the end, it’s clear: in the Dragon Court, the only sentence is death — yours and anyone else who dares to cross the Mongrel’s path.