War. Whether for profit, liberation, or for sheer annihilation of your enemies, many bands have scoured the various battles and wars throughout the ages for musical and lyrical inspiration. World War I in particular remains a fertile ground for a variety of metal bands, with depictions of trenches and chemical warfare highlighted in gruesome, vivid detail. New Zealand’s Vesicant, their name derived from the blistering after-effects of mustard gas, attempt to weave their own horrific tales of one of the ugliest wars in history with their debut album, Shadows of Cleansing Blood. Does the Wellington duo succeed in their attempt for honor, valor, and pride? Or is this best tossed away like a grenade without a pin?
As I hinted above, there’s more than a bit of Bolt Thrower in the construction of the songs, especially when it comes to the foreboding atmosphere of their earlier works. Opener “Blood Miller” lurches at a snails pace, despite guitarist/bassist/vocalist Profanum’s penchant for tremolo-riffing in Drop-Q tuning. His subterranean guttural growls thicken the fog and misery considerably, especially in sharp contrast to drummer/vocalist Mordance’s almost shout-like mid-range yells. Between the two vocal styles, you develop a feeling of dread and chaos that works well in the band’s favor in terms of creating a dense, hopeless atmosphere. That sickening, disgusting, “I’m gonna die a horrific death and there ain’t shit I can do about it” feeling of despair and loss permeates throughout this song and the majority of Shadows.
But here lies the rub: Shadows of Cleansing Iron lacks a solid foundation. In other words, the album pummels, grinds, incinerates, chemically exfoliates, blisters, peels, and pulverizes without fluid structure or hooks. Profanum relies on tremolo to the point of incoherency, and when you can make out a riff, like the dreary melody near the end of “Enceladus,” it still doesn’t feel engaging. To be fair, Mordance also sounds a bit sloppy during parts of songs, such as near the end of “Blood Miller” when it sounds like his snare hit is a half-second too soon. Bands like Inquisition succeed in leveling people’s eardrums because, as a two-piece, they have to be tight and concise. When literally half of your band is dragging, it’s noticeable right away.
What’s also noticeable is how bad this sounds on a production level. Plainly put, this is one of the most painful mixes I’ve had the displeasure of hearing. When my DR reader kicked back the score below, I shook my head in disbelief, as this sounds far more atrocious. You can’t make out any bass, the guitars are overly distorted and compressed, and you can barely hear the bass drums. Worse than that, though, when the band decides to blast away, like on closer “Excoriation,” you’re going to need some maximum strength Excedrin just to make it through to the end. When I’m suffering from a migraine at a ridiculously low volume, there’s something horribly wrong. Hearing this just once proved to be a painful experience, but listening to it twice a day just to find something to grasp onto as a positive is bordering on the suicidal.
While I admire the fact that Vesicant matched their subject matter with equal ferocity, I can’t recommend Shadows of Cleansing Iron unless you need yet another interpretation of World War I, and if you do, there are far better bands and albums to reach for. Shadows succeeds mostly in avoiding hooks and inducing the mother of all migraines. You are best to leave this in the trenches.