As our world evolves further and further down the digital path, it can be frustrating for those of us who enjoy experiencing music as physical media rather than computer files. Many bands, particularly younger/newer acts, release their music either exclusively as digital downloads (or, worse, the dreaded cassette format) or in super-limited CD print runs (or, worse, as crappy CD-R copies). Such issues seem to be compounded for bands releasing demos or EPs. Well, the happy news is that North Carolina’s Divebomb Records feels your pain and has taken decisive action to ameliorate it, in the form of this new ‘Masters of Metal’ series. The idea behind this campaign is assemble multiple bands’ EPs / demos that either were never available on CD or are virtually impossible to find on CD and release them as high-quality silver-pressed compilation discs with booklet, photos, artwork and (in some cases) lyrics. The bands selected for inclusion are active underground old-school bands of today, rather than arcane acts from the 80s, so these are recent studio recordings that many metalheads likely never heard and perhaps never even knew existed. It’s a brilliant concept, and Volumes 1 and 2 have been executed with Divebomb’s usual keen attention to detail and stickler’s insistence on quality.
Volume 1 of the series features 3-4 songs apiece from Crypt Sermon (their 2013 demo), Riot City (the ‘Livin’ Fast’ demo plus single “Burn the Night”), HellRazor (the ‘Soothsayer’ EP originally released by the band in 2010) and Old Wolf (their 2015 demo). The first thing that jumps out at me about the band roster is the fact that the artists are diverse, while all fitting under the old-school metal umbrella. Pennsylvania’s Crypt Sermon are undoubtedly the most known band here, purveyors of doom-laden heavy metal that turned many heads on their 2015 debut album, ‘Out of the Garden,’ released on Dark Descent Records. Riot City from Calgary, Alberta (now signed to No Remorse Records for their forthcoming EP) are catchy shout-along traditional metal through and through, with plenty of nods to the power/speed style along the way. Hailing from Raleigh, North Carolina, HellRazor are by far the thrashiest act on display, with sharp riffage and vocals that alternate between clean and larynx-shredding screams, yet maintain enough of a traditional metal undercurrent that they don’t feel out of place here. And Kentucky’s Old Wolf are a kind of energetic NWOBHM / Thin Lizzy-inspired throwback band relying on massive twin-guitar melodies, galloping riffs, and soaring (yet slightly quirky and definitely unique) vocals. The point is that none of the four bands on ‘Masters of Metal Vol. 1’ sound like the others, yet all of them complement each other. The result is a 14-track, 67-minute listen that never becomes boring or samey, yet also never feels like a choppy mish-mash of styles and sounds.
I suppose the criticism – if there is one – that could be leveled at this compilation album is that, with the exception of HellRazor (whose recording quality / production levels are a cut above), these are demo-level recordings, with all of the caveats that entails. Production’s a bit murky, ideas might not be fully fleshed out, and so on. The most convenient example would be Crypt Sermon. Compared to the ensuing ‘Out of the Garden’ album, the Crypt Sermon demo tracks come up a little short on objective metrics. Even there, the demos are definitely worthwhile and interesting to hear, to gauge how the band progressed and evolved in the intervening two years before their full-length album came out. I already owned the HellRazor ‘Soothsayer’ EP, so those tracks are redundant for me (although I guess most people have not heard them because the CD release was quite limited in numbers and distribution). In all honesty, I was most excited about the inclusion of Old Wolf and Riot City on this release. Both bands delivered killer performances on the second stage at the Ragnarokkr festival in Chicago last May (I missed Old Wolf’s set because of a conflict, but everyone said they were amazing), yet I had never heard recorded material from either one of them. Riot City rock hard and are a lot of fun, especially on the excellent “Burn the Night” with its Riot ‘Thundersteel’ influences. And Old Wolf are well on their way to becoming something very special, their three demo songs displaying sheer mastery of hooks, dynamics, and twin-guitar magic, all folded into cool tunes that stay with the listener long after the CD stops spinning. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the Old Wolf material is one of the finest demos I’ve heard in years. Wow! If Masters of Metal Vol. 1 has the effect of raising Old Wolf’s profile and causing more people to take notice of this incredible hidden gem from Kentucky, then it will have done a huge service to us all.
In the end, I can’t imagine any fan of classic metal not enjoying Masters of Metal Vol. 1. The bands are well chosen, the album is an entertaining listen from front to back, and it’s really the only place you’ll find these worthy recordings on CD these days. Huzzah to Divebomb for a job well done!
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~