Review Summary: A step in the right direction for these elder gods.
Once a prime NWOBHM group, Holocaust soon became the mostly three-piece progressive metal project of guitarist-turned-frontman John Mortimer. Their unique masterpieces like Hypnosis of Birds
are truly well-hidden gems of progressive metal, but when this era of the band seemingly bowed out with Primal, an album which dialed back a significant portion of their eccentricity, I was a little disappointed that Holocaust were starting to sound more conventional. Furthering this, the comeback album Predator
was for sure the closest Holocaust has gotten to the traditional heavy metal sound they're best known for. So I was anxious to see what direction their next release would take.
Now that Elder Gods
is out, I have my answer. Holocaust in some ways stick to their metal roots, with lots of heavy riffs and double bass and C# tuning. Thankfully, the listening experience is full of surprises, this time in a bevy of melodic interludes and the occasional big chorus. I think the overall sound and mood of the songs on this album really fits the spiritual feeling of the concept they were going for, which focuses on the deities of ancient religions, though I couldn't tell you which ones...sorry, never been into mythology. The interplay between their "heavy" side and their "spiritual" side is a key component of this album, and it's usually a success.
The best example is my favorite song on the album, Ishtar, which is a tribute to the fabled goddess of the same name. Right off the bat, we have what sounds like a guitar filtered to sound like a woman singing a longing hymn, along with acoustic guitars playing sombre melodies. It sets a mellow religious mood well, and although a banging metal riff eventually comes in, Mortimer's spirited vocals ground us to the song's theme. The soft interlude in the middle (and the way the heavy riffs seem to come in and out of the song) helps further maintain this mood. But it's not just the soft progressive elements I like, as the riffs go hard too. Lyrics like "She was an icon of sex and war" and "So maybe you think this is just rock and roll" could come across a little cheesy, but the pounding metal groove underneath and the power these lines are sung with gets my head banging anyhow. The only minor complaint I have with this song is that some of the quietest parts could've used slightly more room to breathe, giving the heavier sections some suspense and thus more payoff. Still a badass song.
The kind of creativity flowing through that track rears its head again and again throughout the album, as well as traces of the band's monumental prog metal classics. Children of the Great Central Sun brings back memories of The Courage to Be
with its clean guitar lines and overall grand anthemic feel. Observer Two works as both a throwback to the brief proggy instrumentals on Hypnosis of Birds
and as a direct sequel to Observer One off of Predator
, which itself was a brief instrumental track. Eon of Horus has a huge chorus and goes from some heavy grooves to a nicely executed psychedelic interlude. Benedictus gets off to an awesome start, with a good opening buildup and a catchy, atmospheric main riff running throughout. Natural State creates a hell of a trippy mood with these echoey clean guitar lines, and mixes that with a swinging metal rhythm in the choruses.
As much praise as I've been heaping on the album so far, though, there are some missteps that hold it back for me. A less over-arching complaint is that a couple songs don't work that well. The title track, which gets the album off to a heavy start and eventually gets going in the last couple minutes, is bogged down by a chorus which just doesn't land, and the first half has this kind of limp sound to it..maybe a speedup would've helped with that. (Play this song with the speed turned up in YouTube's video player and be the judge of that.) This opener kind of worried me about the album I was in for, but at least the "HAIL SATAN!" part is cool in a campy metal way. The moody Astaroth has some good ideas and is close to being a good song, but there's this weird filter on much of the vocals which shows itself very quickly, which I found to be a nasty surprise. I like the outro, but overall this number is overlong, and the ill-fitting double bass rhythm popping up throughout doesn't help much.
On that note, the production in general took a little getting used to. It's quite typical of "modern" metal. Everything sounds clear and evenly mixed, and the little acoustic guitar occasionally sprinkled throughout the album (another common element of Holocaust's progressive-era sound) serve as good textures, but the drums have that kind of stiff sound to them that is a plague on metal releases of the last decade and a half. Producers, stop mixing metal drums like that, goddamn it! And while I'm at it, the drumming could've been better. A lot of their previous albums had much more energetic and dynamic drumming. While some songs have nice patterns and good performances, like Children of the Great Central Sun, many others have more simplistic beats reliant on classic metal tropes, which hurts the album's progressive side. Compare the mostly-instrumental Mercier and Camier from Hypnosis of Birds
to this album's instrumental Observer Two for an example of just what a difference more involved drumming can make.
These issues do hold it back from my putting this in the came category of Holocaust's best releases. Even so, it's a solid release, and worth the investment of letting the songs dig into you a little more as you start to discover their subtleties, something Holocaust continues to pull off in their songs even as John Mortimer moves away from being credited as the sole songwriter. I think after all is said and done, this comes together as Holocaust's most inspired record in nearly 20 years, and a worthy tribute to the gods of old. I really miss the Voivod influence in their prior works, but the moody and original nature of these songs is a sure step in the right direction for this band.