In my lifelong quest to listen to every blackened thrash band on the planet I came across Usurper, a Chicago quartet who possessed a particularly heavy and ghoulish take on the style. Formed in 1993, the band sounded like if Celtic Frost had continued writing albums like To Mega Therion well into the 90s. Following several albums in this vein the band adopted a catchier approach with 2005’s Cryptobeast that made them even more fun to listen to. Sadly the group disbanded in 2007 before they could explore this direction further. But does any split really last forever these days? Back in 2015, guitarist Rick Scythe (Scythe, Nightshade) and drummer Joe Apocalyptic Warlord (Bones) reformed Usurper with Cryptobeast vocalist Danny “Tyrantor” Lawson and new bassist Scott Maelstrom. Lords of the Permafrost is the group’s sixth album overall and the inevitable manifestation of this reunion. Does it finally show Usurper assuming their place amongst blackened thrash royalty or just expose them as mere pretenders to the throne?
It turns out things aren’t quite that black and white. Lords is a somewhat unique comeback album in that it doesn’t sound much like the band’s previous work. In fact, the album probably would have been better off foregoing its chilly acoustic intro and instead just opening with a booming voice proclaiming “Welcome to Chug City, bitch.” Opener “Skullsplitter” announces Usurper‘s return with chest-thumping bravado, stomping forward on beefy and authoritative chugs that quiver with the might of Bolt Thrower. The song sounds bigger than the band ever have yet remains true to the spirit of Cryptobeast with its direct songwriting. The title track makes this approach work even better, chugging forward on a battle-ready riff that sounds like one of Amon Amarth‘s groovier moments.
As Lords continues it’s clear that chugs are its bread and butter. Yet bread and butter do not a meal make, and one can only hear so many fat percussive riffs before they start craving something else. “Beyond the Walls of Ice” and “Cemetery Wolf” aren’t bad songs but feature such similar ideas to “Skullsplitter” and the title track that they feel wholly interchangeable. Some variety lurks in the album’s second half, with “Warlock Moon” being faster and thrashier than its counterparts and “Black Tide Rising” reinventing its chuggy verses by incorporating reflective chords at the end of each measure. Sadly even these ideas are little more than minor variations within the typical “chuggy riff followed by blackened chorus followed by chuggy bridge” formula that’s used by nearly every one of these eight tracks. The only song that really breaks this feeling of predictability is “Gargoyle” with its peppier rhythms and a terrifically anthemic black metal section in its second half.
It’s hard to even call Usurper blackened thrash anymore and Tyrantor responds accordingly by using a deeper and more gurgly growl that proves to be a good fit for the increased heft. Likewise the guitar tone sounds like it spent the past 14 years ordering Domino’s pizza and lifting free weights in its living room, beefing itself up with the sort of “fat muscle” often seen on those wearing sleeveless Pantera shirts. Sadly the production as a whole feels a bit boomy and squashed despite the high dynamic range. Nonetheless Rick Scythe’s solos are welcome when they appear, piercing like the sharpest of icicles and soaring over the soundscape like some unheavenly beast. The man can also write some truly potent riffs even if they occasionally come across as too simplistic.
Lords of the Permafrost is a tough album to rate. On one hand, any one of these songs is good and would make a welcome addition to your average Unleashed fan’s gym playlist. Yet at the same time, their structure and chuggy main riffs are so similar that the album as a whole feels redundant. While I technically wouldn’t mind listening to Lords in full again, that hardly seems necessary when you could just pick two or three of your favorite tracks and save yourself 25 minutes. The group would do well to capitalize on moments like the panicked tremolos of closer “Mutants of the Iron Age,” which at least offer some semblance of variety. For now, Usurper seem to have taken their place atop the bell curve rather than the throne. Let’s just hope they slide down the right side in the future.