(Pure Steel 2016)
The Mexican marauders in Split Heaven have been wrecking necks and banging heads for more than a decade now. Over the course of their first three albums (2008’s ‘Psycho Samurai,’ 2011’s ‘Street Law’ and 2013’s ‘The Devil’s Bandit’), Split Heaven built up a following and made a name for themselves as Mexico’s finest traditional metal export. To be sure, ‘The Devil’s Bandit’ was not received quite as warmly as its predecessors. Make no mistake, it was a good album; however, it left some listeners questioning the spaghetti western motif and the pronounced nods toward shiny, polished, modern power metal and away from the old-fashioned jagged speed/power of yore. Not only did the band hear their fans’ criticisms on this point, they agreed, and took matters into their own hands decisively to rectify the misstep. The two band members most responsible for Split Heaven’s directional shift on ‘The Devil’s Bandit’ are now vamoosed, with longtime bassist Carlo “Taii” Hernandez switching to second guitar and American vocalist Jason Conde-Houston joining the fold. Thus reconstituted, refocused, and re-energized, Split Heaven now unveil their fourth album, ‘Death Rider,’ on Pure Steel Records.
Some reviews have been quick to laud ‘Death Rider’ as the rightful successor to ‘Psycho Samurai’ and ‘Street Law.’ I hear that, really I do. With its raw production, stripped-down speedy songs and defiantly old-school vibe, ‘Death Rider’ definitely feels like a kindred spirit to Split Heaven’s first two albums. In another way, however, ‘Death Rider’ feels like the work of a new, different entity altogether. For one thing, the band have become more skilled writers and confidently go from high-velocity bangers to anthemic fist-in-the-air tunes without missing a beat. There’s an impressive range of dynamics there. It wasn’t always this way for Split Heaven before. Moreover, Conde-Houston (also known as vocalist for Washington’s long-running true metallers Skelator) has left a tremendous mark on Split Heaven’s sound. With his clear, high-pitched, distinctive (and, of course, accent-free) voice that puts me in mind of Gerrit P. Mutz (Sacred Steel / Battleroar), Conde-Houston makes the band sound American rather than Mexican. To combat that perception and display pride in their heritage, Split Heaven wisely included two Spanish-language songs, “Descarga Letal” and “Destructor,” both of which Conde-Houston (who is half-Mexican and fluent in Spanish) sings brilliantly as the last two tracks on the album. If I’m not mistaken, though, Conde-Houston’s influence also infiltrates the songwriting, as a couple of the more anthemic tracks (“Battle Axe” and the Maiden/Manowar romp “To the Fallen,” for example) could fit comfortably – both lyrically and musically – on a Skelator album and no one would be the wiser. So if there’s a knock on ‘Death Rider,’ I guess it would be that the band is still striving to develop an individual identity, an own sound to stand apart from the many other practitioners of this classic metal style.
But let’s be clear: Split Heaven deserves nothing less than a ringing endorsement for ‘Death Rider.’ The album is a great, engaging listen throughout all 10 songs and 48 minutes of playing time. The single / video song “Speed of the Hawk” is a bona fide contender for best heavy metal song of 2016, a whirlwind of inspired speed, adrenaline and melody that recalls Riot in the ‘Thundersteel’ days. The title track, “Death Rider,” is another lethal uptempo monster of the highest order. Maybe not everything on the album can live up to the impossibly high bar of these two songs, but it’s all quality, true heavy metal played with passion, conviction and skill. And that counts for a whole lot. I bet these songs would rip live, and I understand the band are working on booking a European tour for 2017. Here’s hoping for a few strategic, high-profile U.S. appearances (at leading festivals maybe?) as well. Oh yeah, and “Speed of the Hawk” rules!
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~