Yes, I'm following a heavy metal album with another heavy metal album, which is unusual for me, but this is a late submission for 2021 and I only have three days left to slot it in. Also, while Thorns was a traditional doomladen heavy metal album for Tony Martin, this is a heavy metal album that looks both backwards and forwards in an intriguing way, so I'm sticking with it. They're Downright Malice from Saint-Louis, which makes them French, but right on the border with both Germany and Switzerland. Maybe the diversity in language and culture that they must see on a daily basis, with Basel only a couple of miles away, is reflected in the diversity in genre in their sound.
Initially, they sound just like an old school metal band from the eighties, merely given production values from the 21st century to make everything bigger, not far adrift from Tony Martin's album. As the opener, also named Downright Malice, runs on, though, we hear what distinguishes them from a traditional sound. It's a lot easier to gallop if you factor in double bass drumming and it's easier to add an edge in 2022 when there's a second vocalist who delivers in harsh style. I've seen Downright Malice listed as heavy/thrash metal and the tempo does enforce that, but that harsh voice is from death not thrash and the resulting sound draws from all three of those genres.
I like that sound and I liked this album from the outset, but it took a while to grow on me. It's fair to say that the opener was decent but I liked this more with each subsequent song. You Can Pray is faster and features more engaging guitar and vocal hooks, not to mention a surprising use of piano late in the song. Malleus Malificarum, the celebrated old Hammer of Witches, adds a choral element to generate atmosphere early on and easily the best riffs thus far. This is a Maiden song with added harsh voice, their famous gallop in full effect here, up to speed metal tempo. It's a peach. And so we go.
While Virtual Reality is arguably a downstep in that escalation, given that it's a good song that's merely the first to not be better than its predecessor, the strong songs continue unabated. I love the crunch this band has, reminding of Metal Church, but Iron Maiden are never far from my ears and there are plenty of other names that crop up as comparisons here and there. This vocal hook is right out of Blind Guardian and that guitar shift is Seasons of the Abyss Slayer. The addition of a piano element to A Time to All brings a gothic vibe into proceedings, even as it stays heavy and fast. In short, there's a lot going on here. Just wait for the keyboard intro to Sin of Pride.
What surprises me most is how long Downright Malice have been around. Usually, bands who drop me a line to tell me about their album are new bands trying to get their name out there, on their first or second albums, often in response to me reviewing something else from their country. This band may well have noticed me for that reason too, but they've been around since 1987 and this is their fifth album. If I'm reading correctly, they've never split up but they're not exactly prolific, an initial album arriving in 1995, a decade passing before their second (with an EP in between) and a trio more since 2005.
The inevitable founder member keeping the band going is Didier Bauer on guitar, but bassist Aris and vocalist Cliff have been alongside him since 1991, over three decades now, long enough to be on every one of their albums. Olivier Riedel joined on drums in 2000 and second vocalist Cyrille at a point in time I'm blissfully unaware of. That does suggest, of course, that Cliff is the clean voice and Cyrille is the harsh one, but I'm happy to be corrected if need be. It's an interesting line-up, a pair of dedicated vocalists over a trio of musicians, but it works for them. They're both old school and new school, with the two mindsets conversing well and never clashing.
Clearly I have some catching up to do. I did hear some French metal bands back in the eighties, in large part because of Tommy Vance and the Friday Rock Show, mostly Trust, of course, but Shakin' Street, Sortilège and Vulcain as well, even Treponem Pal. I don't recall coming across Downright Malice before but I wish I had. Now I have some catching up to do!