Review Summary: Holocaust's most "epic" album to date, a progressive metal concept piece with sharply honed songwriting and varied influences.
The NWOBHM band Holocaust died in 1984, following a disappointing sophomore album almost entirely recorded by founding guitarist and principal songwriter John Mortimer, then resurrected around 1989. In the meantime, Mortimer must've gotten really into Voivod, because their comeback EP The Sound of Souls
was a nigh-masterwork of slightly dissonant progressive thrash metal. Full-length followup Hypnosis of Birds
took the band into even more interesting and endearingly unique places, taking the proggy, thrashy elements of Voivod's sound and infusing them with elements of the whole new-wave, post-punk type scene of the 80s. The album was brilliant, but it also completely bombed, even after being re-released as Spirits Fly
. So did Holocaust "sell out" and put out a blatant soulless retread of The Nightcomers
in a desperate bid for sales?
Covenant may be slightly more conventional than Hypnosis of Birds in its easier categorization as a "progressive metal album" but make no mistake, the band did not lose their originality at all. Instead, Mortimer continues his streak of creativity and continues to surprise the listener with compositional shifts and more introspection than many other metal bands. But the shifts in these songs are rarely jarring, and when they are, they almost always serve as a pleasant surprise, like the dazzling switch-up in track #9, Alexander. Overall, Mortimer does a great job of incorporating subtle transitions between sections of the songs on this album, making sure that everything flows excellently.
A standout example is track #2, Salt Heart. The track begins with this kind of 70s hard rock groove to it, a total contrast to opener Leper's Progress, which is the album's token thrash metal song. Salt Heart keeps switching between that groove and sections which incorporate cleaner guitars and bass to excellent layered effect. After awhile of this, you might be wondering how they're going to keep this well done but repetitive groove interesting for almost 7 minutes. The first answer lies in the excellent solo 4 minutes in, which begins with the kind of guitar squeals that metalheads love, but leans into something more tasteful over time. Then it superbly transitions back into the chorus, and we find our second answer with a seamless transition into a faster, more upbeat section that really feels like the climax of the song.
This album's songwriting is impeccably well-structured, and on top of this, the songs utilize a lot of texture. Acoustic rhythm guitars occasionally lurking under the soft moments, catchy leads accentuating climactic moments in the songs, and a very audible bass guitar that excellently supplements everything else going on, especially in more rhythmic spots, all showcase a band working together to do their very, very best to make these songs come alive as well as possible. These subtleties also serve to make this album very rewarding on repeat listens. I'll freely admit that the first time I heard this album, I thought it was just alright, and a definite step down from Holocaust's best work. But as I gave it more chances, everything grew on me more and more until I came to view this as yet another damn good release from Holocaust.
The songs aren't just crafted with a lot of thought, but heart too. Mr. Mortimer imbued a lot of emotion into these songs. Return to Dust, with its doomy stomp, has this sense of melancholy and longing running throughout. Alexander, which features some slight throwbacks in riffing to the dissonant post-punk sound referred to on Hypnosis of Birds, also reflects a sense of introspection in its music and lyrics. "Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall / But there has to be an end to it all..."
Valley of Megiddo (misspelled as "Magiddo" in official tracklistings) shows the mood shifting. The opening riffs to the song are angry and have intervals very typical of metal songwriting, and the drums pound the song's aggressive rhythm in further. But then we hear switches into something with a lot of resolve, almost triumphant (note how the drums are played softer here), which soon transition into a clean guitar section which sounds happy and peaceful. After a repeat of previous sections, there's a transition into a gloomier segment where there's no guitar, just open, empty cymbal hits and bass strums. I really like how these bass notes are left to linger in these few seconds, giving a really empty, unresolved feeling.
Sounds like a hell of an album, huh? It is, but it also has some stumbling points preventing me from claiming it a masterpiece. One thing that got in the way of me initially recognizing this album's brilliance is that the production is, frankly, rather tinny. The guitars and vocals sound fine, and the bass is mixed loud and clear, which I like. But the actual sound of the bass, ironically, seems to lack low end. This means the rhythm guitars actually carry a bit more bassy oomph than the bass guitar itself. It's not that bad, but it could've sounded better. The drums are the real production error. The snare lacks punch and is too high and reverb-y, but the real audio crime is the hi-hat, which is way too crisp! That irritating hi-hat used to get on my nerves so much, I'd actually use an equalizer when listening to this album to clip the higher frequencies. I'm used to it now, but it's disappointing that some of the power of these songs is clipped by production sounding 10 years behind when it was made.
Another thing holding the songs back is that Mortimer seems to have used lesser vocal takes on these songs. He can be a damn capable vocalist sometimes. On The Sound of Souls
he has this mean ***ing snarl that gives the heaviness a lot of edge. And on this album, he pulls off the more melodic singing well, like on the aforementioned Salt Heart and We Shall See Him As He Is. But I find that his "heavier" vocals sound forced at times. The otherwise excellent Alexander sounds like he's really straining himself. Valley of Megiddo also has a strained sound in the higher notes. I guess he can't help writing songs that push his vocal range a bit higher than he's comfortable with, but still, it is noticeable. These vocal shortcomings make some parts of the album's "epic progressive centerpiece" The Battle of Soaring Windhelven rather awkward to listen to. While I'm at it, that song has some unnecessary sections roughly 11 to 14 minutes in that really could've been cut, and serve to make the song feel a bit bloated. The good parts of that track are as awesome as the rest of the album, though, and the ending sections serve as a solid cap-off to the song, and by extension, the first half of the album.
It's a little disappointing that the album's intended magnum opus doesn't fully stick its landing, but it's not so bad considering most of the rest of the album works really well. On that note, I'd also like to mention here that We Shall See Him As He Is is a beautiful song. Mortimer's attention to detail shines in the verses, where the catchy, pretty vocal lines have a distinct reverb effect and soft clean guitar lines overtop. The second half of these verses ramps up the song's sad, existential mood with lyrics that really struck a chord with me. It's worth nothing that this entire album is actually a concept album based on a series of books titled The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
, especially the first book. But the themes in these songs' lyrics aren't solely applicable to this book series. I've never read those books and probably never will, but I still found myself affected by Mortimer's lyrics.
"All our earthly ambition ends in the grave
Like this song
Who will hear it when I am long gone?"
John isn't just singing about a character in a fantasy novel here. He's lamenting the obscurity of Holocaust's progressive metal era, and this story is indeed a sad one. After Holocaust came back as a prog metal band, the same metalheads who whipped their hair to The Nightcomers
and Metallica's cover of The Small Hours pretty much totally ignored them. Mortimer was putting his heart and soul into these intricately crafted, sometimes beautiful songs, yet they went largely unheard. And sure enough, this album itself ended up misunderstood. Metal Hammer UK's review of the album called it "music for Billy No-mates" and "utter ***e". Well, their opinion is utter ***e, and so was mine when I thought this album to be merely okay at first. Holocaust's Covenant
is a solid addition to their impressive discography, and a hidden gem of progressive metal. Good work, lads.