(Swords & Chains 2016)
Hailing from Seattle, Washington, Substratum have built up a healthy buzz in the underground traditional metal community of late. Over the last year or two, I kept hearing favorable reports about the band from people whose musical tastes I respect. As a further indication of the high regard in which they are held, Substratum have been confirmed for both Chicago’s Legions of Metal Festival in May and Ventura’s Frost and Fire III in October. They released a 3-song demo in 2015, followed by a full-length debut album via the discerning Swords & Chains label last month. The self-titled effort (adorned with eye-catching cover art by noted painter Dimitar Nikolov) includes all three tracks from the demo (“Last Voyage,” “Who Am I,” “By Any Means”), plus six additional songs, including the epic “Curse of the Soothsayer Trilogy” as tracks seven through nine.
Substratum get an awful lot of things right on this album. Let’s start with the production, which manages to sound grimy and old-school while still packing a punch. The guitar tone is raw, meaty and powerful, suiting the music perfectly. Then there’s vocalist Amy Lee Carlson, who really sells these songs with a gritty, leather-lunged, passionate delivery that reminds me in places of the legendary Leather Leone. Carlson’s range may be limited and she may be a touch low in the mix at times for my tastes, but she does a stellar job conveying attitude and true metal spirit. And Substratum have come up with an excellent batch of material, especially in cuts like the exceptional “Last Voyage” and “Burn the Night.”
In terms of style, Substratum’s sound is firmly rooted in the 1980s, with the usual crop of NWOBHM influences especially in the riff department; however, they manage to avoid sounding derivative by putting their own spin on the proceedings. For one thing, Substratum are faster and heavier than many of their British forbears and American old-school contemporaries, with U.S. power metal tendencies (and maybe even a slight Iced Earth proclivity, if my ears don’t deceive me). For another, the band favor extended song forms (often in the 5-6 minute range, or longer), with a penchant for lengthy instrumental sections where guitarists Alex Gerde (who is no longer in Substratum, but performed all rhythm guitars on the album) and Jonny Haynes really shine. There are even a couple of spots (“Pain God” and “King in a Grave”) where ominous male spoken-word parts are used to add a different texture. And special mention must be given to the album-concluding trilogy, in which Substratum tackle an ambitious 19-minute epic tale of timeless, undying evil that begins with an Iced Earth-style gentle clean-guitar intro overlaid with searing lead guitarwork. It’s a beautifully executed passage of music that gives way to a mighty riff two minutes later. Later on, the second part of the trilogy concludes with a magnificent instrumental section, including “hey” chants that must explode in a live setting. Part three expertly shifts among different moods and feels before building to a stellar finish. Well done!
I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect it was quite a struggle for Substratum to complete this album. According to the booklet, recordings were overseen by three different people between 2014 and 2016. That’s a long time. As mentioned, an integral member (guitarist/writer Alex Gerde) left the band sometime after rhythm guitar tracking was concluded. Independent bands chasing the dream of heavy metal glory rarely have an easy, smooth path. Whatever sacrifices and tribulations Substratum had to overcome to make this album a reality, they were well worth it from this listener’s perspective. Substratum have successfully combined their NWOBHM roots with a healthy dose of U.S. power metal and delivered a record of which they can justifiably be proud. Can’t wait to hear this stuff played live!
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~