Here be lions. Or so say S.R.L., a band who immediately appeal to the corporate lawyer in me, as they take their name from the acronym for the Italian ‘Società a Responsabilità Limitata,’ or ‘limited liability company.’ Back to lions though. The album title Hic Sunt Leones is usually translated from Latin as ‘here be lions’ and was seen on old maps, marking unknown or dangerous areas. Perhaps it was this sense of the unknown that inspired S.R.L., as they jump to new label Rockshots Records for this release. Active since 1992, this is the Italian death-thrashers’ first release since 2013’s Unus et Viginti, an EP celebrating S.R.L.’s 21st year of activity and comprising several re-recorded tracks from their early years, as well two previously-unreleased numbers. Did the intervening five years allow S.R.L. to move forward or are they still stuck in their own past?
Certainly not opting for the modern touch straight off the bat, S.R.L. open “Il Culto” to the sound of crackling flames and a Latin chant, presumably intended to sound occult and threatening. All I can say is that the Latin is thankfully short-lived and, as it fades, so a blast beat rises and, with a gut-wrenching roar, the band rips into life, laying down a meaty thrash riff, tinged with death and hardcore influences. The sheer energy and aggression that S.R.L. pour into what they’re doing carries you along, making the album feel much shorter than its 47-minute run time. I have to say that, when listening to 2012-effort De Humana Maiestate, which on paper is similar in length to this new record, I found myself wondering several times whether I had accidentally hit ‘repeat all.’ While Hic Sunt Leones is definitely a case of evolution, not revolution for S.R.L., at no time did I find myself wondering how much longer the album had to run. On the contrary, there is enough variety, as well as changes of pace and a few unexpectedly melodic passages, to hold the listener’s attention throughout, without ever straying away from what S.R.L. clearly want to do.
For me, the undoubted centrepiece of Hic Sunt Leones is the vocals. These, ignoring the smattering of Latin, are all delivered in S.R.L.’s native Italian, something they have resolutely stuck to throughout their career and which I admire, albeit that it does leave me in some doubt as to the lyrical themes explored. This linguistic barrier does not lessen the visceral impact of the vocals, however, as they lurch between death metal growls, throat-shredding screams and occasional hardcore barks, bringing to mind some kind of collaboration between Carcass, Himsa and Converge. The one puzzle about the vocals is that these contrasting styles are frequently layered – to good effect, it must be said – one atop the other, and yet mic duty is apparently all handled by one guy, Francesco “Khaynn” Bacaro. While I struggle to see, therefore, how this could be recreated live, there’s no denying that Khaynn has a set of pipes on him and he turns himself inside out for the entirety of Hic Sunt Leones.
Around him, guitarists Cristiano Alcini and Stefano Clementini churn out riff after thrashy riff, offering lightning tempos but also introducing some death metal technicality or a hardcore chug, just often enough to provide variety without losing focus. “Un Sasso nel Vuoto” is perhaps the best example of this, and arguably the most accomplished track on the album. It was “Tenebre,” however, that really hooked me: opening with a slow chugging riff that builds and teases before the hammer drops, and S.R.L. are away at a lightning pace pummeling all they survey but still not afraid to weave in melodic death elements later in the track.
Although each listen did reveal a little something new, ‘subtle’ is not adjective that really applies to this record, but then what do you expect from an album called Hic Sunt Leones? And, frankly, who cares about subtlety when the music is as unashamedly brutal as this? This release sees S.R.L. take big strides forward compared to their last couple of outings, upping not only the aggression but also the variety and experimenting with more melodic through lines to boot. While this is not a stone-cold classic, it is a very solid slab of death-tinged thrash, which will be on fairly frequent rotation for me. Leones indeed.