The patient lies before me, cold and lifeless, the blue skin flayed back, exposing viscera painted crimson. To my side sits organ-filled jars, each one cataloged with dispassionate notes detailing a lifetime’s accumulation of damage and abuse. The corpse is silent but that’s OK, the scalpel in my hand has told me everything that I needed to know. As I sluice the body and its gruesome paraphernalia down the incinerator chute I’m suddenly taken by a thought, is it fair to judge a life under the microscope, sliced into pieces by the surgeon’s blade? Isn’t it better it be remembered as an individual in the flower of their youth?
This ghastly tableau illustrates my struggle with Them’s debut album Sweet Hollow, a pulpy pastiche of songs that’s infuriating when dissected by the critic’s pen but was also at times captivating when enjoyed as a living, breathing creature and not as a random assortment of limbs and entrails.
New the band may be, but the individual members are all seasoned veterans, most notably bassist Mike LePond from Symphony X and drummer Kevin Talley from Suffocation. Markus Ulrich (Lanfear) and Markus Johansson (Sylencer) are on six-string duties and Richie Seibel (also Lanfear) handles the keyboards. Vocalist Troy Norr’s recent experience moonlighting in a King Diamond tribute band informs what Sweet Hollow is all about: a concept album built around the protagonist KK Fossor (played by Norr) trying to retrieve his dead daughter from the clutches of evil. Reading the above you won’t be surprised to hear that the music is energetic, over-the-top self-indulgent pageantry stuffed to the gills with duelling solos, galloping chords, percussion disguised as artillery fire and a vocal performance so cheesy that those that are lactose intolerant would be well advised to steer clear.
Despite the King Diamond name-dropping, the heavy focus on lead guitar steers the album closer to power metal and ends up drawing inspiration from Iced Earth, Helloween and Bark at the Moon-era Ozzy Osbourne. Though my DNA may be bleached of any musical ability even an ignoramus such as myself can recognize the immense talent on display and the second track “Forever Burns” is the perfect song to demonstrate this. Underpinned by Talley’s cascading drums, the music here is perfectly weighted, holding back enough to draw you in only to suddenly crackle with lurid neon solos that are at once both captivating and catchy.
Sadly “Forever Burns” is the only track on the album free of criticism as practically every other is stymied by dragging on well past the point of patience. The overripe nature of the tracks can be attributed to the individual musicians’ feverish desire to demonstrate their music bona fides. The hypnotizing bass in “Ghost in the Graveyard,” the electric atmosphere of ballad-laden “Dead of Night,” the vaudevillian “FeastEvil,” all undermined by musicians too concerned with pouring Gatorade over themselves in self-congratulation than to swallow their pride and pare back the music.
If only wanton bacchanalian excess was the album’s solitary sin, but Troy Norr’s vocals must be made to account. Norr typically bounces between a Matt Barlow mid-range and King Diamond falsettos and for the most part he sticks the landing with these, adding a real sense of power and colorful theatrics. Things start to unspool in the latter half of Sweet Hollow where Norr takes leave of his senses and employs coarse, tough-guy vocals reminiscent of Tourniquet’s Luke Easter, an unfavorable comparison by anyone’s metric. It’s incredibly off-putting and serves to emasculate the excellent music it’s bolted to. The dynamically limited production is also somewhat troubled, appearing at first punchy and dynamic with great separation, only to grate after extended exposure.
All of this would be enough to relegate Sweet Hollow into the fun-but-forgettable category, but every time I put my pen and notepad down and listen to the music as a collective whole I discover I quite enjoy myself. Yes, the aforementioned issues are still prevalent, but they recede into the background just enough for the album to not only be agreeable but at times downright arresting. Them have the potential to produce something truly special in the future, so long as they can keep their over indulgent tendencies in check and banish any trace of those odious try-hard vocals. The body may be cold but when I close my eyes I can still picture a life full of joy, just enough at least to turn the corners of my mouth into a subtle smile.