When one thinks of passionate metal that bleeds their country’s heritage and history, Primordial usually ends up being the first, if not only, band that springs to mind. With a rich catalog rife with epic song structures, full-chord riffs, and the soaring vocals of A.A. Nemtheanga, the Irish quintet possess a discography to be envious of. Oftentimes battle-worn, other times sad-yet-defiant, Primordial never cease to craft works of metallic art that thrusts them head-and-shoulders above their contemporaries. It stands to reason, then, that their ninth album, Exile Amongst the Ruins, would see their trajectory arch higher, touching the heavens with their brand of metal that bears “no compromise, not then, not now, not ever…”
But even legends whiff once in a while, and Exile whiffs pretty hard at points. But before I go there, Exile does contain some strong moments. Album standout “To Hell or the Hangman” bursts with an undeniable energy, seeing the band tap into the vaults of Killing Joke and even a bit of U2 towards the end with Nemtheanga’s seething vocals relaying a story of a jilted lover who murdered his interest’s beau before being hanged by his own father. Its immediate follow-up, “Where Lie the Gods,” dips into the same melancholic waters that “The Coffin Ships” masterfully navigated, with a beautiful acoustic passage in the middle that captures that somber feel that’s become Primordial‘s trademark. “Stolen Years” takes that morose feeling further, but condenses that powerful emotion into a compact, effective five-minute song.
And there’s the rub. In the past, Primordial wrote long, sweeping tunes that hurdled past the six-minute mark, but made those songs epic journeys that made every emotional second count. Not one note out-of-place, not one rhythm pattern wasted. On Exile, the longer songs, more often than not, end up directionless and plodding. Opener “Nail Their Tongues” doesn’t reach the heights of prior openers, with little variation to keep things interesting. Closer “Last Call” also breaks the pattern of epic album finishers, with a middle that’s meant to build up to this amazing climax, but ends up feeling plodding and tepid. Hell, even the aforementioned “Where Lie the Gods” and “To Hell or the Hangman” could have used some much needed variety in the riff-and-rhythm department, as both beat their respective riffs and patterns into the ground so much that they emerge from the other side of the world.
Exile also suffers from a relatively lifeless Ola Ersfjord production, with Pól MacAmlaigh’s almost non-existent bass and Simon O’Laoghaire’s muffled drums taking a big hit. Thankfully, the acoustic guitars during “Where Lie the Gods” sound lush. But even with a warm production, and this hurts to even say this, Exile sees Primordial coasting in a well-established safe zone. With the exception of “To Hell or the Hangman,” not once do the songs feel adventurous or stirring, and the epic feeling one gets from all members firing at once is missing throughout the album’s entirety. When I’m skipping a song here and there, that’s one thing, as even the best albums have a song or two that can be skipped once and awhile, but when I’m ending the album after the fifth song with three songs remaining, that can’t be overlooked.
Much like Rotting Christ before them, Primordial have found themselves in a bit of a creative holding pattern, and I hate saying that, as few bands tap into that primal, gut-wrenching, blood-boiling power quite like they do. I’m sincerely hoping that they right the ship on the next go-’round, and that they tap into their rich musical vocabulary to return to their rightful, epic position. Because, as it stands, Exile is a massive let-down.