Note: Back in March 2018, we published a review of what was then intended to be the second EP by Vermithrax, based on advance previews of the recordings, to coincide with the band’s Kickstarter campaign. During the intervening months, the project has evolved considerably. The biggest news is that the band recovered some lost recordings that allowed them to expand this release from a five-track EP to an eight-song, full-length affair, to be released in October 2018 with distribution by Divebomb Records. As a result, it seemed only proper to update the March version of the EP review to incorporate these new developments.
Forged in the steel furnaces of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, six years ago, Vermithrax have slowly, steadily been making a name for themselves ever since. The band’s strengths include their incendiary live performances, their high degree of technical proficiency, and their decidedly blue-collar approach to their craft. It also helps that Vermithrax are viciously, relentlessly heavy, melding the bludgeoning intensity of thrash with a melodic (and sometimes quirky) flair, and somehow counterbalancing both the new and old schools of heavy metal in equipoise. Guitarist Scott Haggerty boasts a seemingly limitless arsenal of razor-sharp riffs and dazzling solos, and Chris Roy ties everything together with a voice that goes from gruff bellow to high-pitched snarling rasp, boasting a dramatic character that recalls the likes of Bruce Hall (Agent Steel/Psychosis), Chuck Billy and especially the late, great Warrel Dane in spots. Vermithrax don’t really sound like anyone else, but listening to them puts me in mind of everything from Nevermore and Sanctuary to recent Exodus to Psychosis to even the prog/thrash of Prototype.
After months of breathless anticipation, Vermithrax are finally on the cusp of releasing their debut full-length album, an eight-track, 39-minute affair entitled Imperium Draconus. It’s an impressive, varied, dynamic piece of work, with all facets of the band’s sonic attack on full display. Opener “The Keys” is approximately 30 seconds of acoustic guitar noodling, setting the stage in the way that Metallica did back in the Ride the Lightning / Master of Puppets days. The quiet acoustic strumming quickly gives way to the unabashed monster that is “Enoch,” a six-minute tour de force that encapsulates everything I love about Vermithrax. “Enoch” begins with a haunting melodic build-up before a fiery tornado of a lead break from Haggerty kicks the band into high gear. The song moves seamlessly from thrashy punishment in the verses to a hymn-like, marching refrain. Roy’s vocals are particularly effective here, as he cries out, “We must manifest ourselves!” Just a killer track all the way around, guaranteed to snap necks worldwide. Next up is “Crucified by Hate,” a malevolent midtempo stomp where the guitarwork once again shines and Roy scares the hell out of you by singing about “when the blood rains down.” The intensity and heaviness of Vermithrax’s attack don’t let up on the oddly titled “Road to Athkatla,” with its shifting tempos and Roy straining for the highest end of his range in the chorus. (I’ll confess I had to run a Google search to learn that Athkatla is a fictional city in the Dungeons & Dragons world.)
The next three songs are all heretofore-lost recordings that the band has thankfully recovered and included on Imperium Draconus. Importantly, the same meticulous compositional and sonic standards that characterize the other tracks are maintained throughout (including mastering by acclaimed producer Chris “Zeuss” Harris), so it would be inaccurate to dismiss these recordings as cheap demos tacked on to inflate the running time. The sub-4:00 “River Cruor” is a simply savage thrash track, blasting out of the gates with intense ripping speed and white-hot energy recalling vintage Slayer, before settling into a vicious mid-paced section with remarkably restrained and tasteful guitarwork. The band then slams down the gas pedal for the final 30 seconds or so for a bloodthirsty race to the finish. The juxtaposition works brilliantly, and “River Cruor” is a gem. Track 6, “Spellbound,” is another standout cut, adding versatility to the album by spotlighting Vermithrax’s melodic, traditional side (think early Fates Warning/Sanctuary). The delicate, acoustic-tinged bridge is enough to cause goosebumps, before the galloping chorus ignites the fire, as Roy sings a love story about an enchanting river witch, but with a twist. And Track 7, “Calling My Name,” is another first-rate exercise that demonstrates Vermithrax’s penchant for punishing rhythms and dizzying lead guitar amidst ebbing and flowing dynamics, all without sacrificing catchiness.
The album ends on a high note with an eight-minute Flotsam & Jetsam medley, merging “Hammerhead” and “Hard on You” in a manner that is guaranteed to delight devotees of the Arizona thrash kings. The medley is extremely well done, and kudos to Vermithrax for picking two of Flotsam’s best songs for this endeavor and absolutely nailing them. This is the right way to do a covers medley. Flotz ‘til Death!!!
There are so many great bands from Pittsburgh and its immediate environs: Lady Beast, Argus, Icarus Witch, the mighty Ironflame and Blackfinger all come to mind. Add Vermithrax to the list. No, they’re not a nostalgic, purely old-school band, but they have one foot in the past and the other squarely in the present as they honor the thrash masters of the ‘80s while simultaneously attempting to move the genre forward into the now. There’s a lot of creativity at work on Imperium Draconus. Vermithrax deserves your support. And this album is only the beginning. The band have amassed a prodigious stockpile of new songs for future releases. Vermithrax are inspired, they’re driven, and they’re heavy as hell. Give ‘em a listen.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~