Style: Epic Doom Metal
Release Date: 26 Apr 2019
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The problem with looking at published best of 2019 lists to see what I might have missed from last year is that almost everyone concentrates on American bands and ignores anything from outside those borders. That doesn't mean the albums they include aren't worthy: looking at them has highlighted bands to me like Blood Incantation, Baroness and Lingua Ignota, but it does mean that they're missing a whole heck of a lot of fantastic stuff from other places.
Fortunately, there are other lists. The guys over at MetalSucks seem to love Smoulder, who come from Toronto on the other side of one of those borders. I looked them up and found that lead vocalist Sarah Kitteringham also reviews metal, at Banger TV, and they have a special focus on international music as I do here. So hey, all credit to her and them for that and on to her band!
Smoulder play epic doom metal and this is their debut album, after a demo in 2018. Since this, they've also put out an EP which I ought to take a look at too, that features two new songs, a cover of Manilla Road's Cage of Mirrors and the three tracks from that demo. They aren't the most original band I've ever heard and they're more focused on passion than finesse, but wow, they frickin' rock! In a perfect world, they'd have been founded a decade earlier so that they could have supported Dio on tour.
The Michael Whelan cover and overblown title are more than a hint at what a wary traveller might find inside. This is unashamed fantasy, with songs set in the worlds of Michael Moorcock, George R. R. Martin and, best of all, the wonderful C. L. Moore. Yes indeed, there's a Jirel of Joiry song here! This is all conjured up in a style that will work very nicely for fans of Manilla Road, Cirith Ungol and Brocas Helm, not to forget Manowar, though this is a lot less cheesy and a lot more chunky, in large part because of an excellent mix job by Arthur Rizk.
Make no mistake, Smoulder have a huge sound anyway, with pounding drums and earthshattering riffs and real dedication in the vocals. This is old school metal to play as loud as it gets. I'd love to see this band live, partly to bury myself in their sound but also partly to if anyone has the balls to sit at the bar and shrug them off. I hope not. What Rizk does is make absolutely sure that they still sound huge on record and that's a whole other thing.
They simply storm into action here, with that Moorcock song, which is power incarnate. It's Ilian of Garathorm and it tells of the Eternal Champion in an appropriately mythic fashion. There's a universe where villagers recount stories, over flagons of ale, of an epic band who rode into town, destroyed with this one single song and promptly vanished into the mist, never to be seen again.
The Sword Woman slows things down a little, focusing a little more on doom while never losing the epic. Then Bastard Steel ramps it up faster, with a galloping drumbeat from Kevin Hester that makes us believe we're inside the world's largest mosh pit, which shimmers and becomes a battlefield. This is more epic and less doom, meaning that we've had all the combinations needed in the first three songs, with three more to come.
What follows doesn't vary that much, but it continues to rock, hard and in highly consistent fashion. There's a storm that heralds the Voyage of the Sunchaser, with a bass run from Adam Blake to set it on its way. And, after Shadowy Sisterhood, which is decent but unremarkable in this company, the album wraps up with a nine minute epic, Black God's Kiss, which tries hard but doesn't quite gel for me. It sounds good but it also feels long and it doesn't grab me the way that the earlier songs did, at least until it ramps up its tempo seven minutes in.
Given that I loved everything about the first half and at least enjoyed the second half, even if it felt a little lesser, this would be an easy 7/10 for me. However, rather ironically for something focused so strongly on fantasy, I'm going to give it another point for feeling so damn real. It's partly the production and partly the fact that this band obviously adores what they do and everyone involved pours themselves into this material. Horns ablaze!