Review Summary: It doesn't reinvent the breaking wheel, but The Plague one hell of a slab of heavy sludge. Required listening for fans of the genre.
Vocals in metal are a funny thing, particularly in the more extreme and underground genres. Given that the lyrics are almost always incomprehensible and not particularly important, and each style has a sound that's expected of them, most of the time the vocals are treated as just one of the instruments rather than the "front man", mixed in with the rest and frequently blending in behind other band members. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that a lot of the time a listener might almost forget about the vocals unless they're really bad or really good.
I say all that because Sven of Iron Walrus has one of those voices that can stop you in your tracks. I'll avoid making too many parallels, but Iron Walrus is straight out of the Crowbar school of sludge and Sven's powerful bellowing sounds like Kirk in "lumbering giant" form. It's just enormous, like the words are coming out in a tar-thick vomit of misery. Even when he breaks things up and does some clean singing it's hardly "melodic". From the opening salvo of "The Answer" (the album's intro is a soft instrumental track) through the closer, Sven's vocals all by themselves cause the word "sludge" to leap out of the speakers and club the listener over the head with itself.
Now, none of that would matter if the rest of the band didn't give a performance that was up to the task. Fortunately, they do. Boy howdy, do they ever. These riffs are mid-tempo stomps, they're not dazzling with solos and arpeggios, the kind that constantly scream to be played louder, louder, until the threat of tinnitus is a risk you're willing to take just to let them cave your skull in a few minutes longer. Instrument by instrument, it would be dishonest to speak of any of the performances in superlative terms, because none of these performances sound terribly complex or difficult. That, however, does the band a great disservice, because any technicality added to these nine tracks (again, minus that intro) would have detracted from the effect. The claustrophobic, dense atmosphere each track creates works largely BECAUSE of the relative simplicity of the instrumentation. That gentle blues effect is in full force, and each riff will have you wishing each song was longer just to hear some more of it.
The album's production definitely helps buoy the effect. The guitars are layered and meaty, the bass growls in the proper "stringed instrument" way rather than sounding like a synthesizer, and the drums crack, boom, and sizzle beautifully. Simply put, The Plague is HEAVY. I'd give a track-by-track or point out particular winners, but honestly this is an album where picking any track at random will give you all you need to know about it. That said, Medial Sin's explosion shortly after the 2 minute mark is one of the best examples of a sludge metal tsunami I've heard from a band that wasn't formed in sludge's heyday 15-20 years ago.
Quite honestly, the reason the rating is a 4.5 rather than a 5 is that, as a sludge album in 2015 that's relatively by-the-book, even that is a bit of an exaggeration. The album's "true" rating is somewhere closer to a 4.2, and if there were justice in this world after reviews came pouring in and several dozen people heard it that's where it would even out, and find itself nestled in a comfortable spot on the top 50 sludge albums below all the legends but well above the less talented latecomers. This is really that good, that the only serious criticism of it is that it's not offering anything new even though it does it exceptionally well.
All in all, The Plague is that special breed of album that might not have you singling out individual tracks as highlights, but rather putting the entire thing on repeat. Sure, off hand the riff to track 2 versus track 7 isn't easy to remember, but you remember how the whole album felt like Judge Doom at the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, glued to the steamroller and feeling it slowly crush your body. Sure, they didn't forge the path or trailblaze the genre, but Iron Walrus achieved what every metal band wants: make a devastatingly heavy album that warrants a place in constant rotation.