Last year in our EP edition of TYMHM, I waxed eloquent about a great little proto-thrash demo from some Wellington, NZ upstarts, Stälker. Their Satanic Panic cassette was such a nasty bit of early speed metal that it garnered the attention of Napalm Records, and this power trio was set to record their full-length debut this year. Enter Shadow of the Sword. Last year I compared these guys to early Canadian speed metal merchants Exciter, as well as the first Anthrax album, Fistful of Metal. One could stack Satanic Panic up against any of that early 80s speed/thrash output — Accept, Motörhead, etc. Can the lads keep it going on their first full-length?
Well, it’s an A for effort, that’s for sure. “Total Annihilation” tears out of the gates with lightning riffs and speed to burn. And just like on Satanic Panic, the band verges on losing it altogether throughout, just barely keeping up with each other. The three songs from that demo are all present here as well, and they should be, as they are kick-ass tunes. A few times the band hints at slowing down — the beginning of “Path of Destruction,” “Evil Dead,” and “Demon Dawn” — but those are simply red herrings, as seconds into each Stälker are going full bore again. The template of choice is more like “Shocked to Death,” with a great opening riff, hyper-fast rhythm, indecipherable (except for the chorus) vocals, and short, fast lead breaks. This is the speed metal we grew up on.
Despite forming in 2016, Stälker are no spring chickens. Guitarist Chris Calavrias and drummer Nick Oakes are from now-defunct speed merchants Razorwyre, a band that also knew how to deliver the goods. Calavrais, in particular, stands out here, with excellent riffs and blinding lead breaks. Oakes’ drumming is top-notch, often bordering on frantic. Clearly, bassist Daif King drew the short straw and was saddled with vocal duties in the band. King shrieks, shouts, wails, warbles, and screams his way through the songs with an unbridled enthusiasm that is inversely proportional to his actual talent. For some, this will be a showstopper, while for others it harkens back to the days when nobody could really sing, but somebody had to, and why not go all out? King is so bad he’s good, and with his vocals buried in slap delays and other effects, words can be hard to make out anyhow — but you sure get a feel for what he’s trying to get at.
Of special note here is the metadata below. Through nefarious means I cannot discuss publicly, I wound up reviewing what sounded like a master recording, rather than the finished product. The stream didn’t sound nearly this good, of course, and when it comes to this sort of throwback album, a hi-fi recording seems a bit odd. I compared the same songs from Shadow of the Sword and Satanic Panic, and the difference is stark. I actually hope the final version is muddied up and compressed a bit. Excellent file resolution aside, the production and mix are, well, mixed. The delays on King’s vocals, coupled with his voice being a bit low in the mix, is probably a good thing, but the guitars needed to come up a bit when delivering the tasty riffs that litter the album.
I sure hope Stälker stick around longer than Razorwyre did: Shadow of the Sword is a real treat, ten songs that never let up, drowning us in wave after wave of proto-thrash. While the pristine sound of my copy didn’t fit the style, assuming the final release has a bit less fidelity this is the template all bands looking to revive the early 80s sound need to follow. While the vocals are cringeworthy at times — and on purpose — the songs overcome this easily with ceaseless speed and infectious riffs you’ll find impossible to air guitar to. Stälker deliver on the promise they showed with Satanic Panic and then some.