Friday 22 March 2024

Midnight - Hellish Expectations (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Black/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2024
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I'm not sure we can truly say that Midnight formed in 2003, given that it's a one man solo project put into motion back when Athenar was merely Jamie Walters, the bassist and vocalist in an Ohio based heavy metal band called Boulder. I guess it's when he came up with the name and recorded an initial demo. A couple of decades on, Boulder are long gone but Midnight are well established, this being his sixth studio album. In fact, he's ramping up output, Rebirth by Blasphemy, Let There Be Witchery and this arriving only two years after each other.

It's a real step up on its predecessor, which was decent but slower and more sedate than a typical Midnight live performance, where they blitz through song after song at so frantic pace that each could be a bullet and they have to empty the bandolier before closing time. This really doesn't do anything that's new to anyone who's heard Midnight before, but it feels far more representative of their stage show and that's a good thing. They blister on stage and it's felt awkward to me that they don't blister on album. Well, they do here.

Sure, Escape Total Hell kicks off the album with what could have been an S.O.D. mosh part, but it's ready to speed up quickly and it doesn't even think about slowing down again, except as one tease midway before launching right back into full gear again. The previous album feels like it was stuck in third gear compared to this, which is pedal to the metal all the way. This is a quintessential song for Midnight too, hearkening right back to the early days of extreme metal. There's Bathory here and Venom and even someone like Bulldozer. The riffs are simple but they're relentless.

The most unusual aspect to Expect Total Hell is that it lasts almost three and a half minutes, which makes it almost an epic for Midnight. There are ten tracks on offer here but this is the only one to reach three minutes. The entire album has stripped off, washed up and gone to bed in not far over twenty-five minutes. When an album is over three minutes shorter than Reign in Blood, even with the same number of tracks, then you know it's inherently stripped down to its vicious essence.

All ten of these tracks get down to business immediately and don't waste time wrapping up when they're done, even something like Slave of the Blade, which is a tad slower than the tracks before it, playing out with even more of a Tank vibe to the guitarwork than others, both the riffs and the solos, and an Exciter transition into the chorus. As you might imagine from the names I've thrown out there as comparisons, everything's old school here. In many ways, Midnight's sound is close to everything I loved about heavy metal in the mid eighties. There's NWOBHM riffing, the tempo of early speed metal and the edge of proto-extreme metal, all at the same time.

In many ways, Athenar has found the balance point between early Saxon and early Bathory, but I can't figure out which way that goes. Maybe it's both in turn. Dungeon Lust isn't light years away from Saxon covering Return of the Darkness and Evil, while Nuclear Savior has moments where it could be Bathory covering Motorcycle Man. There's Motörhead all over Expect Total Hell and in a whole bunch of the other songs too. There's Tank everywhere. Mercyless Slaughtor (sic) goes back to that S.O.D. moshing mindset. F.O.A.L. kicks off like Girlschool but is presumably another Venom homage, a nod to their F.O.A.D.

Of course, extreme metal has moved on a long way in the half a century since all those tracks saw original release, but you wouldn't be able to tell listening to Midnight. The most modern sounds to be found here are the black metal tinges to Athenar's Cronos-inspired vocals and the 21st century production values. Bathory never sounded this clear. He's still back in the early eighties and I have no complaints. I'm just fascinated in how he varies his influences depending on which instrument he's playing. When he's behind the kit, he's Philthy Animal Taylor. On bass, he's Cronos. When he's playing a guitar, he's Mick Tucker and Peter Brabbs of Tank.

And, at the end of the day, he's Athenar, because, as much as we can hear all those influences as if there were closed captions pointing them out to us, the result sounds like Midnight. While I only gave Let There Be Witchery a 6/10, because it sounded like a slower, watered down version of the Midnight I saw on stage, I'm happy to give this one an easy 7/10 because it has all the energy and pace of the Midnight I saw on stage. I'd go higher, because it's so much fun, but the constant lack of originality brings it back down again. So a safe 7/10 it is this time out for a more authentic take on Midnight.

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