June 5, 2024

There was a moment when I had to glance nervously out of the window to ensure that marauding hordes weren’t at that moment sweeping across my back garden and laying waste to it, because if they ever did, this would be the soundtrack … a magnificent celebration of what vintage metal could really be like, given a new sheen and overhaul and sent out to terrorise the neighbours.

Okay then, first things first. Take a look at the band name here, and even more importantly, the rather splendid cover artwork. Now, you’ll sense that there is a theme there which indicates that this probably isn’t jazz-funk or acoustic folksy songwriting. This is a release which, even before you hear it, advances on you threateningly and screams the word ‘METAL!’ in your face. This is often a very good thing but conversely it is a tactic all too easily used by any gang of hod-carrying chancers who want a short cut to riding on the coat tails of Slayer, for example. It’s a strong and arresting image which is easy to manipulate and take advantage of – which is one of the reasons why it’s so gratifying to find an album like this which can just as easily swagger confidently into the room, sidle up to you, and merely whisper ‘metal…’ into your ear, smiling disconcertingly. It doesn’t need any bells and whistles around it, except to alert the most receptive of ears to its charms, because this is an album which, from front to back, is the Real Metal Deal.

Now, before proceeding I feel I should lay my own metal credentials, if you will, before the court. Being of a 1970s listening vintage, I was exposed to the delights of heavy rock/metal and prog rock simultaneously in the early to mid 70s (and it is easily forgotten how much those styles shared a fanbase back then – you’d see the same long-haired, loon-panted figures at shows by Yes, ELP, Sabbath or Deep Purple). It was like two sides of the same coin which was all legal tender in our collections, with very little tribalism between the two. Hell, bands like Uriah Heep couldn’t decide which camp to be in so just happily put one foot in each, and brilliantly so. But I always held a special place in my musical heart for the sheer visceral delight of a proper, monolithic guitar riff. When I started going to live shows in the mid-’70s, my first few were all from the heavy side, Purple, Sabbath, Rainbow, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Motorhead… All of which comes in a roundabout way to one of the reasons why I adore this album.

COFFIN STORM (Photo: Christian KICKAN Holm)

I cut my musical teeth on albums like Black Sabbath’s first four, and there is something primal in the allure of that sound echoing down the years to this day which gets my pulse racing and my still-hirsute but greying head banging. Not so much in slavish copyist fashion, or exaggerated to extreme effect (a failing of some of the contemporary ‘doom metal’ exponents’ at times), but in capturing the spirit, the excitement and, most importantly, making it all sound as if it’s as new and thrilling now as it was the day that Master Of Reality opened with Bill Ward’s echoing cough slamming into Swet Leaf. And this album manages to do that and then some, with equal amounts of influence from other, later masters of the genre. But, who ARE Coffin Storm?

Well, further investigation led me to discover that they are something of a Norwegian doom/black metal ‘supergroup’ of sorts, the three members being known for a variety of bands from that extreme yet uniquely Scandinavian scene. This, however, sees them playing in a slightly different sandpit, with a sound which is guaranteed to prick the ears of even grizzled old throwbacks like your humble scribe, muttering over our real ale about how it was great when it was ‘old school’ etc – while still sounding edgy and downright pulverising enough to bring in the second generation torchbearers of the metal scene, from the thrash, death, doom and black metal worlds. It’s a hard trick to pull off successfully, but the Coffin Storm trio of Apollyon, Fenriz and Bestial Tormentor (possibly not their real names) manage it because basically they are simply that good at what they do.

I first approached this simply out of curiosity, largely from that cover art and the lengthy six tracks making up the album (yep, I am that predictable), but from the moment the opening Over Frozen Moors kicked in with a riff hitting double figures on the metal Richter scale, I was hooked. harnessing a seminal chugging grind right out of the Metallica Black Album-period playbook; even some slightly weak vocals and an unremarkable chorus are like a Kansas outhouse in a tornado before it. There was a moment when I had to glance nervously out of the window to ensure that marauding hordes weren’t at that moment sweeping across my back garden and laying waste to it, because if they ever did, this would be the soundtrack. The title track follows up with even greater focus and purpose, with some pleasingly 1970s Judas Priest vibes coming in, like Victim Of Changes meeting up with Sinner in a metal tag team. Even the vocals, which I had dismissed as a weak link in the opening track, become a star here, with vintage Rob Halford tones soaring over the brutalising riffery in a magnificent celebration of what vintage metal could really be like, given a new sheen and overhaul and sent out to terrorise the neighbours. It’s a brilliant track, but it still isn’t the best here. Enter the ten-minute behemoth which is Open The Gallows…

This epic-metal masterpiece of a track really does have it all, as it touches just about every metal base I love the most. Sabbath? Yep, but from Paranoid to Vol 4 is what they plunder here. Priest? Sure, but homing in on the classic trio from Sad Wings Of Destiny to Stained Class, and getting off the bus before the more teen-friendly flavour of the band started Breaking The Law and Living After Midnight. Metallica? All over this record, but largely the seminal Master Of Puppets to Black Album period. And while those influences are all over this track (and the whole album, really, along with early Candlemass providing the soul-crushing Doom element), the lengthy mid-section of Open The Gallows even allows some Rainbow Rising epic metal grandiosity to get to the table, with the storming guitar work evoking the majesty of Stargazer at times. It’s the crowning glory on an otherwise cracking table.

The remaining tracks continue to impress. Eighty Five And Seven Miles gives us some lively mid-tempo Metallica work straight from the Master Of Puppets workshop, while the closing Clockwork Cult takes Tony Iommi’s downtuned, cemetery-cool chugging riffs as a template for an absolutely coruscating conclusion. And even when they hit the weakest track songwriting-wise in the less memorable Ceaseless Abandon, they still manage to rescue it by following up a somewhat droning chorus with a switch to a livelier sort of Sabbath-inspired riff, kicking up its heels and raising the whole level of the track. It just underlines that, whatever the material, these guys are simply too damn good not to make it good. There isn’t a hint of the likeably amateur vibe you get with some young, enthusiastic retro-merchants here: it may not be the usual wheelhouse exactly for these guys, but they have the chops and the sheer experience to make it their own, front to back. It’s all metal, and when you’re as accomplished at this, it’s all your bread and butter in different ways. Ronnie O’Sullivan might be a world championship snooker player, but you think he couldn’t wipe the floor with you at pool every day of the week and twice on Sunday? It’s like a metal version of that.

To sum up, this is a great metal album. No, it’s a great album, full stop. It might appeal to all of my metallic touchstones, but it has the sheer class and freshness to have a good shake at hitting any metal demographic to these ears. It’s quite some time since a pure and unadulterated Heavy Metal album made my top ten albums for a year. I’m going to lay my cards down now and say watch this space – because if this doesn’t make it the there’ll have to some pretty impressive competition coming down the pipe! Masterful, and good enough to make me remember why I loved heavy riff-based guitar rock in the first place. Because at its best, there’s just nothing like it.