You’d think after the success of Game of Thrones that classic heavy metal would have a much larger resurgence in the outskirts of the mainstream. I guess it was always niche though – hell, technically Game of Thrones was niche despite its zeitgeist-suplexing appeal for years. I never watched an episode of the show, but I do dabble in high fantasy here and there, especially when it comes packaged with riffs.
Smoulder kind of erupted on the scene with their debut album, Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring. It was lovingly amateurish, but exceedingly fun and promising for a band that knew the art well, being astute fans and apprentices of the likes of Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road. I liked it a lot. Violent Creed of Vengeance fashions itself from the same forge as that album, but faster. Songs are a bit speedier, a little more focused, a bit more mature and learned, but I have a hard time telling myself – or y’all – that it’s wholesale a better album. And that’s okay! Let’s get into why.
Being a lead single for a hyped album, “The Talisman and the Blade” was up to do a lot of heavy lifting. Luckily, and skillfully, for Smoulder, that song is brolic as fuck and was quite able to sell me on this new era of the band. It’s fast, fun, and packed with enough melody to keep entire armies stomping their feet. It does a lot within it’s sub-five-minute runtime and stays entertaining the whole time – certainly an example of putting your best foot forward. Everyone is instrumentally vibrant as well. Sarah Ann’s vocals are strong, dancing all around her natural range. Shon Vincent and Collin Wolf did everything in their immense power to bring captivating guitar passages while Adam Blake’s bass is always present in the mix, playfully rumbling underneath Kevin Hester’s supreme drumming.
The most recent single “Spellforger” is also a force to be reckoned with. Taking a big page out of Blind Guardian‘s tome, it’s frenetic and sees Smoulder at their fastest yet. While not full-bore speed metal, the construction contains flecks of that approach (it’s over before you know it compared to other more meaty tracks), though tonally leans closer to a golden-era Iron Maiden. The vocals soar high on the chorus which leans high into the eponymous arcane subject:
‘In a tower far on the hillside
They command a wayward realm
Few possess this gift, the power of sorcery
With staff carved from sacred tree
Amplifying the power they behold
Mythical and magical, summon the unknown’
The marquee track is the final one, the biggest helping of Smoulder served up thus far. “Dragonslayer’s Doom” is marked by a lethal, venomous amount of groove in its axe work. The bass is downright funky at some points and it just seems like everyone’s having a damn blast on this track. Inspired by Maiden’s own metal epic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, this is a nearly ten-minute exhibition of what the band is capable of and it’s one of my favorite songs of theirs as a result.
This next part hurts to type, but if there’s anything that pulled me out of the experience a bit with Violent Creed of Vengeance, it’s the vocals. There’s some spots where the vocals feels stronger than Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring (see above!). Others, like on “Path of Witchery”, they actually seem a tad flatter by comparison. Sarah Ann’s technique is totally serviceable for this music and largely unchanged from previous work as far as approach, so then why do I find some songs don’t work as well as others? I actually found that when she seemingly ventured a little out of her comfort zone like on “Spellforger”, it worked well for her. I could very well be tripping and wouldn’t let this opinion discourage anyone from checking this album out as it still rips.
As for the rest, only time will tell if this album has anywhere near the same staying power as Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring. While I was greatly impressed with about half this album, the other half sagged ever so slightly beneath the former half. Usually recency bias gives us an inflated sense of joy and impression with music, but I seem to have the opposite, instead asking the album to prove itself worthy of joining its younger sibling in the pantheon of epic metal greatness. I’m being hyperbolic of course, but the point stands – maybe I just like Smoulder with more doom influence. Regardless, I’ll always have “Ilian of Garathorm” and “The Sword Woman”, and I’m glad they got to work with noted anarchist and fantasy author Michael Moorcock for some narration on “Victims of Fate”, which was an excellent touch.
Really, Violent Creed of Vengeance isn’t better or worse than previous Smoulder efforts – it’s just different. A little faster, a little more classically tuned, but the drama and bombast of heavy metal is still dense in the air surrounding this now Finland-based group. It’s an enthusiast’s record so to speak, the unpainted miniature figurine that demands a bit of work to get into. It may not convert people into new fans of the band or genre, but it’s a solid indication of what’s possible with the deceptively diverse sound and how much fun you can have with it. Like a D&D role-playing sesh, the more you commit to it, the more you get out of it. My very personal gripes aside, it’s a killer album with its heart in the right place, well worth a try for those looking for a battle theme or three. And to borrow a note from the band:
Love Metal | Hate Fascism
Death to Rapists and Rape Culture
Band photo by Emma Gronqvist