(Heaven and Hell 2018)
It’s true: The stars at night are clear and bright, deep in the heart of Texas. As a cultural matter, Texas pride lies deep in the hearts of denizens of that fair state. As a musical matter, Texas has a rich heritage of underground heavy metal excellence spanning the decades and subgenres from death metal to doom to prog to traditional metal. So I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone launched a project geared specifically to celebrating Texas metal. In this case, “someone” turned out to be Robert Williams, guitarist of Ignitor and Witches Mark and an accomplished music journalist (at Metal Rules) in his own right. Williams’ plan was elegant in its simplicity: Assemble a cast of Texas underground metal musicians, from the well-known to the obscure. (Among the marquee names are James Rivera and Larry Barragan from Helstar, Donnie Van Stavern from Riot and S.A. Slayer, Mike Soliz from Militia, Jason McMaster from Watchtower, etc., and Ross the Boss – wait a minute, he’s a New Yorker, right? That’s okay, we all need more Ross the Boss in our lives.) Write a batch of killer, stylistically disparate songs for them to perform. Sprinkle in a couple of cover tunes. Call it the “Texas Metal Outlaws.” What started as a simple premise turned into a labor of love for Williams and his collaborators, spanning four years from inception to completion. The fruits of this endeavor are an album entitled Texas Metal Outlaws, which is seeing the light of day on CD (via Heaven and Hell Records) and vinyl (via Texas Metal Underground Records) later this month.
Highlights are plentiful on Texas Metal Outlaws. Opening track, the suitably monikered “Texas Metal Outlaws,” is a speed-demon kick in the (broken) teeth a la Thundersteel-era Riot or fast Ignitor, featuring McMaster’s trademark screaming vocals and lyrics extolling the virtues of Texas metal as a “hydra of sound” or a “bloodbath of steel,” humorously “from the land of Shiner Bock and big ass burritos.” Equally satisfying, albeit in a totally different style, is “Sound of Scorn,” a terrific doom number with lumbering, monolithic riffing and an impassioned, intense vocal from Mark Zammaron (Las Cruces, among others) singing, “I am the trumpeter / And I blow sounds of scorn.” Powerful, impactful stuff, and my favorite track on the album. The Riot cover, “Running from the Law,” is executed with all the love and care and attention to detail it deserves, showcasing Donnie Von Stavern on bass, appropriately enough, and McMaster and Soliz tag-teaming the vocals splendidly, employing a far more restrained delivery than one might expect, given their wailing pedigree. The song featuring James Rivera, entitled “Echoes of Memory,” flirts with blastbeats and more extreme elements, just as latter-day Helstar have done. Williams is to be commended for tailoring his writing style to the different vocalists, and presenting songs that embrace a wide swath of Texas underground metal history, rather than being restricted to the hammer-down, no-frills trad metal favored by Williams’ regular bands.
Without question, there’s some really well-done, top-notch material on Texas Metal Outlaws. But the album is not an unqualified success. For my taste, a couple of songs miss the mark. Track 2, “Malt Liquor Maniac,” is a stripped-down-and-dirty biker-metal type ditty that sees Williams barking out gruff effects-laden lead vocals himself with some cringe-inducing lyrics (oh, I know they were supposed to be tongue in cheek) about drinking 40 oz bottles from the corner store, “even chug the bitch foam,” and being victimized by the titular character who is so “drunk now and later” that he is “clearing out your bank account and your refrigerator.” You get the picture. Its placement as the second song unfortunately kills a lot of the momentum generated by the opening “Texas Metal Outlaws.” And the closing song is a silly rewrite of “That’s What Friends Are For.” Yeah, the Dionne Warwick song. Instead of singing things like “Keep smiling, keep shining / Knowing you can count on me for sure,” the TMO version has lines like “Keep slaying, keep raising / Goathorns in the air cause I am sure.” I mean, it’s clever and the guys obviously had quite a laugh taking the piss out of this maudlin song, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d want to hear more than once or twice. (You know that Twisted Sister Christmas album where they do a metal-lyric version of “Twelve Days of Christmas”? Yeah, it’s kinda like that.) Furthermore, a skeptic might view Texas Metal Outlaws as simply an Ignitor album disguised by a plethora of guests; after all, several members of Ignitor feature prominently, and the creative braintrust powering this machine is clearly Ignitor’s six-string tandem of Williams and Stuart Laurence, who played nearly all the guitar parts, wrote nearly all the music (Williams) and recorded, mixed and produced the album. Of course, the musical diversity on display and the aforementioned guests should effectively rebut that sentiment. Also, the tracklisting is a bit on the skimpy side, with just six original songs plus the two covers and a 36-minute total running time. But I choose to laud Texas Metal Outlaws for what it is. It ain’t perfect, but when it’s good, it’s really really good, folks. I applaud the effort, I applaud the results, and I sincerely hope there’s more where this album came from.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~