In a dimly lit basement sits an easel covered by a dust-kissed veil. Beneath it reveals a portrait illustrating denim-clad, leonine-tousled men. Their faces are sunken and scored, their skin sallow and mottled. Whilst the painting’s subjects may be cruelled by time, the actual bands portrayed here are instead brimming with life, churning out quality music that belies their age. Faustian this may seem but it’s the only explanation for thrash acts Megadeth, Anthrax, Annihilator and Destruction releasing their best material in years — and in some cases decades. Switzerland’s Poltergeist is another 80’s thrash band looking to make a comeback, with Back to Haunt being their first album in 13 years. Has Poltergeist managed to stumble upon a new lease of life or are they just another example of sad old men clinging desperately to nostalgia [How dare you? – Steel Druhm]?
Back to Haunt is billed as a reunion but, considering vocalist André Grieder and guitarist V.O. Pulver are the only returning members, it’s a rather misleading label. Still, I was morbidly curious to see how 13 years of absence would impact a modern thrash album. Would we get a bundle of songs trapped in time like a mosquito in amber, or would the influence of the changes wrought in the intervening years as well as the inclusion of new band members give us something more contemporary sounding?
Opening title track “Back to Haunt” definitely veers towards the latter with an up-tempo, crunchy rhythm section that wouldn’t be out of place on a modern Exodus album. In fact, for the most part, the bulk of the songs seem to occupy the faster paced, straight-for-the-jugular signature that Exodus and Destruction are known for these days. Speaking of Destruction, Grieder provided vocals for their 1990 album Cracked Brain and you can hear Schmier’s influence, adding a dose of sneer to the delivery.
Most bands front load their albums with their best material, leaving the back half sounding anemic and starved of energy. Poltergeist bucks this trend with the opening five tracks of the album — although competent — serving up nothing particularly exciting with the exception of the tasty groove of “And So It Has Begun.” It’s not until sixth track “The Pillars of Creation” that the band starts to stretch its muscles and present something truly exceptional. Underpinned by a hypnotic ascending chord similar to “Amon Ra” from Dan Swanö’s little known Odyssey EP, this track is a powerful, epic number that shifts through a variety of movements lending a very strong progressive flavoring. Grieder ditches the snark and instead employs some emotionally charged, earnest vocals that really helps sell the majesty of the music on offer. From here the band continues to mix things up, “Faith Is Gone” borrows liberally from Prong with a hold-and-release interplay between drums and riffs while upbeat number “Shell Beach” brings to mind Annihilator’s “Brain Dance” with its manic energy and out-and-out silliness.
The final track (or penultimate if you opt for the special edition of Back to Haunt which includes a bonus song) “Beyond the Reams of Time” cribs the opening bars from “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” to set the tone for an introspective, multi-layered metaphysical journey. The Metallica comparison sticks throughout the song, with the phrasing of solos and the galloping rhythm section recalling various moments from Master of Puppets. It’s a satisfying conclusion to an album that is hobbled by a rather jejune first half. Having said that no song on this album can be accused of being outright skippable as even the most middling track has at least one or two quality solos to save it from mediocrity.
I would say the strongest criticism to level at Back to Haunt is that it lacks a cohesive identity. This is in all likelihood a side effect of Poltergeist’s thirteen-year absence in addition to having to balance the influence of new band members. The mastering could also be better, as the paltry dynamic range leads to the music sounding unfocused and diffuse in the busier, more complex arrangements.
Despite my misgivings, this is a solid album with a few moments of genuine inspiration. If Poltergeist get around to releasing another album before Halley’s comet returns hopefully they’ll lean into a more inventive side of their songwriting and produce something that can truly stand with the ever-green titans of the genre.