When Metallica’s Black album arrived in 1991 it was a watershed moment. Metallica’s fifth offering was not just the next step in the quartet’s evolution but it was like thrash metal had grown up. Naturally, there were cries of ‘sell out’ for a ‘few’ record sales – 31 million and counting and 29 years later still several thousand per week – but whether the album is a personal favourite or not, it was a band taking their sound to different places. A band’s need to evolve aside, the Black album was no thrasher but it was a heavy record with melody that appealed to the masses and not just to an underground elite; the daddy’s of the San Francisco Bay Area showed what could be done by reforming their sound and looking beyond. And it was nothing new, whether it was before or after Metallica, other thrash bands also had a crack at the combination – Overkill’s Horrorscope, Megadeth’s Countdown To Extinction and Testament’s The Ritual to name but three – every one an essential release in their own right, heavy with melody but none that anyone would call a thrash album.
Heathen’s Empire Of The Blind proves that is possible to have both – an album that has its thrash components in tact but wrapped up in enough melody with quality song writing to offer a much wider appeal – and if there truly is any justice in the world and on the back of this album, Heathen deserve to go stratospheric.
Heathen may not be a name that trips off of the tongue and it is true, since their debut Breaking The Silence was released in 1987 the new album is only their fourth in their three decade career. Make no mistake though – and despite their career stops and starts – Heathen is as instrumental to the Bay Area as any other band noted as a scene main player. It is ten long years since previous album The Evolution Of Chaos and Heathen has been missed but it begs the question “has the wait been worth it?”
The Evolution Of Chaos propelled Heathen into the 21st century bringing a classic thrash sound with modern recording but Empire Of The Blind ramps that up with even more melody and epic song writing that jams its way into the skull on one listen with a beckoning finger to explore the detail. While there is plenty of that, everything is so well compacted and tight that there is no fat to trim, no skippable tracks, no missed beats and this makes for an absolute monster of an album heading straight for the jugular and there is no way of stopping it. And the key? That balance between thrash and melody.
Opening instrumental This Rotting Sphere which starts gently but escalates the guitars to a soar before slamming into The Blight which kicks off the thrash in superb style. This is the first chance to hear just how solid the musicianship of this quintet really is, the into riff, bass and drums are so tightly entwined it is nothing short of dazzling. This song also proves what is possible with some simple backing vocals, David White turns up the aggression a notch on the bridge and with the backing of two tone line of “dead!” gives the “3D” feel from the speakers which then in turn kicks into two immense solos and this, ladies and gentleman, boys and girls is how to do it. The title track heaps even more melody, the intro and verse riffs are just sublime, a subtle serrated edge to them before a glorious ear worm of a chorus. David White on vocals is in his element and throughout the whole album but Empire Of The Blind is one of a great many standout performances, especially on a chorus that is so damn infectious that it will be rattling around the brain for days. None of the performances on the album are less than impressive, the guitar partnership of Lee Altus and Kragen Lum is just incredible and it is solidly backed up by a tight rhythm section in drummer James DeMaria and bassist Jason Mirza.
The album has heaps of variation and enough twists and turns which keeps the record flowing; Dead And Gone is more of a slow groove and again, White’s vocals switches between aggression on the verse which coolly morphs into melody and underpinned by a razor sharp guitar tone that floats the vocals. Sun In My Hand has more hard rock flavour although there is enough stomp in its guitar parts that keep the tune chugging whereas Blood To Be Let, seriously picks up the pace and throws down the thrash gauntlet with a charging headbanger that showcases some great drum work from DeMaria. Thrash is not exactly unknown for the occasional power ballad and Shrine Of Apathy is breathless in its execution and one that truly showcases David White’s range as a vocalist taking us back to the heady days of waving a lighter towards the stage.
Empire Of The Blind‘s twelve tracks are split over nine songs, an intro (This Rotting Sphere) and outro (Moment To Ruin) and an instrumental, the hard hitting A Fine Red Mist and there may be questions as to being “short changed” as to actual songs. If that is the case then a point is being missed because Empire Of The Blind actually feels and sounds complete in its construction. With its lyrical bleakness, Heathen is delivering a set of songs that taps into the song writer’s view of the world and human existence that invites us to take a journey with a beginning towards an end and this direction of travel takes so many highs and lows. It is impossible to miss how on point Empire Of The Blind really is both musically and lyrically.
In a year that is really a story in itself, the world has not been short of decent thrash albums and with Testament also turning out a cracker with Titans Of Creation and now Heathen, the Bay Area is well represented. Heathen has been much missed though and this new album is hardly a surprise in terms of how excellent it is. As much as Empire Of The Blind is what thrash should sound like in 2020, it is also not a record just for the ageing thrashers, its depth, eye on detail and the huge swathes of melody is what makes this record one that newcomers and even outsiders to the thrash genre will enjoy.