Thursday 5 November 2020

Heathen - Empire of the Blind (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 18 Sep 2020
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I remember Heathen from back in the day. They were a second generation Bay Area thrash metal band, who, along with Testament, Forbidden, Death Angel and others, underpinned the pioneers and helped to cement San Francisco as the thrash capital of the world. I remember enjoying their debut album in 1987 and I have a white label test pressing of it around here somewhere, but I haven't pulled it off the shelf in as long as I can remember, perhaps because I haven't seen the name in a while.

I knew that they broke up in 1993, with a pair of studio albums to their credit, but hadn't noticed that they had reformed in 2001, with a third well-received album in 2010. This is their fourth, a full decade later, making them one of the least prolific thrash bands out there. However, they're still a good one.

I refreshed myself with a trip back to Breaking the Silence and can happily say that Heathen are still a technical thrash band, led by the guitarwork of Lee Altus, who's also still in Exodus, as he's been for a decade and a half now, and the clean and melodic vocals of David White. Both of them have been core members going way back, Altus all the way and White almost as long.

The combination of these two is what places Heathen a distance towards progressive metal, especially with so much of this performed at mid-pace. I've heard prog metal bands that sound exactly like this, especially on songs like Sun in My Hand, even if they would never have considered themselves thrash in the slightest. So there's enough grit in White's voice that he'll never sing for Queensrÿche? That's not a problem.

I liked this immediately, not only because the delicate guitar intro is particularly nice, and it got into my head a little more than I thought it would. My overall thoughts after a couple of listens were that this was good stuff but not great stuff and, as much as I enjoyed the songs, which are of a consistent quality across the whole album, I wasn't likely to remember them much. Then I wandered off to get a sandwich and I found Blood to Be Let playing in my head. So it's catchier than I thought it was!

Sure, that's probably the highlight of the album, everything combining in just the right quantities, but In Black is quintessential technical thrash too. The first minute is just complex riffing and it's as magnetic as anything else here. And then there are another eight songs that play very consistently along with them.

While it's hardly the most immediate thrash album of the year, it's a real grower because it's deeply written and impeccably performed and I now fully expect to play this a lot more than the big releases from earlier months. I'd put it above the Testament, Havok and Mekong Delta albums, up there with Annihilator to duke it out for the best of the year thus far. I'm particularly interested to see how my already high opinion of it grows.

While much of the credit surely goes to Altus, as ever the heart of this band, a great deal should go to his fellow guitarist, Kragen Lum, who's been with Heathen since 2007 so was on the previous album as well. Beyond Heathen, he knows Altus particularly well, as he's been covering for Gary Holt in Exodus whenever Holt is touring with Slayer. Not only does he play the other guitar here, he wrote the whole album and helped Christopher 'Zeuss' Harris with its excellent production.

Talking of Exodus, both Gary Holt and Rick Hunolt, whom Altus replaced in Exodus, guest on a great instrumental called A Fine Red Mist, along with Doug Piercy of Anvil Chorus fame. White sits it out, of course, but the rhythm section of Jason Mirza on bass and Jim DeMaria wisely allow each of these five guitarists to have fun without trying to steal any of the spotlight. Both are new to the band, as there have apparently been a lot of line-up changes at the back of the stage of late, but they provide solid backing throughout and especially here with the focus on the guitars.

From initially enjoying but not sold, I'm actually finding it difficult to stop listening to this one so I can review another album today. That fact alone renders this a gem.

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