VISIGOTH Conqueror’s Oath
(Metal Blade 2018)
It is not hyperbole to say that Visigoth are one of the most exciting new bands to emerge in the last few years and one of the great shining hopes for handcrafted American metal in the 21st century. Hailing from – of all places – Salt Lake City, Utah, Visigoth captured the minds and hearts of the underground metal hordes with their 2015 debut, The Revenant King. This was hammerforged epic doom-flecked metal of the highest order. With mesmerizing songs, swords-and-sorcery lyrics, and the truly sublime vocals of Jake Rogers, The Revenant King was nothing short of an aural feast for the discerning old-school metalhead, and the marketplace reacted accordingly. The band solidified their reputation with a string of killer live shows, including a U.S. run opening for Night Demon and legendary festival appearances at prestigious events like Frost and Fire, Keep It True and Pounding Metal. Now Visigoth return with the first major release of 2018, in the form of their sophomore album, Conqueror’s Oath, on Metal Blade Records.
After spending considerable time with the album, I can confidently declare Conqueror’s Oath to be a triumph, a bold step forward for the band, and a milestone for the genre. Make no mistake: This is the same Visigoth you fell in love with on The Revenant King. The massive riffs, the dynamic arrangements, the mystical songwriting, and the chest-beating feeling of indomitable power and magick in the night remain fully intact. Rogers sounds better than ever here, and just might have cemented his status as the finest metal singer of his generation. The combination of power, control, range, emotion and charisma that Jake Rogers brings to the table is truly special, and I always get a kick out of his signature “oooh” grunts in just the perfect moments (not a million miles removed from what Tom G. Warrior did on those early Celtic Frost records). Guitarists Leeland Campana and Jamison Palmer have stepped up their game as well, with numerous memorable, magnificent leads and melodies. And production-wise, Conqueror’s Oath packs a real wallop, sounding punchier and yet more organic than the debut.
In many ways, Conqueror’s Oath is a continuation of The Revenant King, and Visigoth proudly proclaim in the press release that they are not endeavoring to reinvent the wheel here. That said, it is important to recognize a key (and potentially controversial) difference between the two records. With Conqueror’s Oath, Visigoth have streamlined their approach, refining their attack to something leaner, meaner and more pointed and concise, distilling their sound to its essence for maximum impact. What does that soggy pile of adjectives mean? Whereas The Revenant King clocked in at 60 minutes with seven songs eclipsing the six-minute mark and two exceeding eight minutes, Conqueror’s Oath is a mere 42 minutes of concentrated thunder and bombast, with a handful of songs shorter than five minutes and none exceeding seven minutes. This development may understandably be met with skepticism by the more-epic-than-thou segment of the band’s fanbase, but take heart, my stout-hearted friends of the iron brotherhood. This album is pure Visigoth through and through, just condensed into a more focused and lethal package. To my mind, the grandiose, epic tunes like “The Conqueror’s Oath” (which is every bit as sweeping and grand as anything on The Revenant King) or “Traitor’s Gate” or the sublime second half of “Warrior Queen” are accentuated, emphasized and strengthened by the presence of offsetting, quick-hitting, ass-kicking shorter cuts like “Outlive Them All” (a heart-pounding scorcher that is already one of my favorite Visigoth songs ever) and “Salt City” (a fun rockin’ homage to Visigoth’s hometown). That sense of dynamics works with devastating effectiveness on Conqueror’s Oath, and prevents the sort of “epic fatigue” that might set in when listening to the debut. To be sure, not everyone will be enamored by this change, but I think Visigoth have executed the modification masterfully, tightening things up while preserving the true essence and heart of the band.
Special mention must be given to the album’s opening track. Anyone who’s caught Visigoth onstage over the last couple of years may remember a song that they introduced as “Vatt’ghern (By Steel and Silver),” which has become a staple of the live set. Now going by the abbreviated moniker “Steel and Silver,” it makes a welcome appearance as Track 1 of Conqueror’s Oath. It rules. A lumbering monster of a song, “Steel and Silver” captures everything I love about Visigoth in six glorious, fist-pumping minutes. It’s well worth it to buy this album just to own a proper studio recording of “Steel and Silver,” a timeless, immortal old-school anthem that gets better and better every time you hear it. Damn thing gives me goosebumps.
My fearless prediction is that Conqueror’s Oath will carry Visigoth to greater international prominence and allow them to take their rightful place at the vanguard of the old-school metal elite. Visigoth is poised for greatness. Recognizing this auspicious moment, the band will strike while the iron is hot by spending three weeks conquering Europe in February and March to promote the record, including high-profile appearances at the Metal Assault Festival, Swordbrothers Festival and Hell Over Hammaburg. I hope and expect that significant U.S. touring will follow. Wield the spear of destiny and ride the mammoth beast of Visigoth to the promised land, won’t you? They are the silver and gold standard of epic metal in 2018, and Conqueror’s Oath sees them prepared to outlast the moon and the sun. Bow your head and kneel. There can be only one. Hail!
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
NIGHT DEMON / VISIGOTH
Chicago, IL & St. Louis, MO
May 8 & 9, 2016
Two of America’s best and brightest hopes for traditional metal recently joined forces for a 20+ date spring tour of the USA. Ventura, California road warriors Night Demon headlined the package, performing at least their fourth substantial U.S. run since fall 2014. Though still promoting last year’s awesome ‘Curse of the Damned’ opus, Night Demon had a few tricks up their sleeves this time around. Dubbing the trek The Final Curse, Night Demon’s plan was to play the ‘Curse’ record in its entirety, including a number of deep cuts that most fans had never heard the band perform live. The also used the occasion to break in a new guitarist, Armand John Anthony, who replaced departed founding member Brent Woodward. Also along for the ride were Visigoth, Salt Lake City true metal titans whose ‘The Revenant King’ debut last year turned heads and cracked skulls from sea to shining sea. In contrast to Night Demon, Visigoth had never embarked on a major U.S. tour before, so it was most fans’ first opportunity to witness the power and might of the Visigoth live attack. Jen and I caught the tour twice on consecutive nights, in two different cities. Here’s the rundown …
Sunday, May 8, 2016
It was Mother’s Day. The day after the Ragnarokkr Metal Apocalypse festival’s conclusion. We had stuck around in Chicago for the afternoon to hang out with friends and take in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. The weather was beautiful, the sun was shining, and the game was fun, even though the $9.50 beer concession prices were not. Except that the damn game wouldn’t end. It just kept going and going. Nine innings turned to eleven innings, and next thing we knew it was 6:00 p.m., the twelfth inning had just ended with the game still tied, and we were a long way from Reggie’s Rock Club, where the gig was supposed to start at 8:00 p.m. So we ditched the game, grabbed some Mediterranean food on the run, walked back to our friends’ house as fast as we could to pick up our earplugs, then hopped a red line train to Chinatown, arriving at the venue at a minute or two past 8. Fortunately, we had not missed any of the festivities.
It was surreal to be back inside Reggie’s the day after Ragnarokkr ended. Tonight’s gig was in the smaller room, where the festival’s second stage was housed, and it was strange seeing the room so quiet in contrast to its packed-to-the-gills status the last two nights. That’s not to say the venue was empty. Far from it, the draw was a respectable 50-60 folks, which is not bad at all considering it was Sunday night, it was Mother’s Day, and most Ragnarokkr attendees had either flown home or were still passed out in a ditch or an alleyway somewhere from overdoing it all weekend long.
At around 8:30 p.m., Visigoth took the stage to an extremely partisan, enthusiastic crowd. I was amazed how many people around me seemed to know every word to every song (at least, the ones from ‘The Revenant King’). Perhaps feeling buoyed by the rabid audience, and rested from two nights off in a row (many members of both bands had partaken of the Ragnarokkr fest as spectators, instead of as performers), as well as the fact that their girlfriends had traveled in for this tour stop, Visigoth were simply ferocious tonight. Vocalist Jake Rogers attacked the stage, being hugely animated and getting right up close and personal with the fans upfront. He was relying heavily on gulps from a pitcher of hot water in between songs (and even during instrumental breaks or between verses within songs) to ease his voice through the night, yet he sang with full power, did not appear to be holding anything back, and sounded magnificent. Jake was flanked on either side by flailing-hair guitarists Jamison Palmer and Leeland Campana (the latter in just his third or fourth gig back after missing the first part of the tour because of personal obligations). The opening one-two punch of “Dungeon Master” and “Mammoth Rider” was simply beyond reproach, but afterwards Visigoth pivoted to a new song “By Steel and Silver,” with which I was somewhat familiar because I had heard them play it in Ventura at Frost & Fire last year. Then they graced us with a well-chosen cover of “The Spell,” which dates back to Demon’s second album, ‘The Unexpected Guest,’ from 1982. The Visigoth version of this catchy gem of a song is quite faithful to the original, although as one might expect Visigoth boost the guitars and (if I’m not mistaken) the tempo a bit. They rounded out their sublime 40-minute set with splendid renditions of “Blood Sacrifice” and “The Revenant King.” Visigoth are such a great band, and I expect bigger and better things from them in the future. My only disappointment was not hearing “Iron Brotherhood” tonight. Whatever. Go see them whenever and wherever you can. Setlist: Dungeon Master, Mammoth Rider, By Steel and Silver, The Spell, Blood Sacrifice, The Revenant King.
The middle band on the tour, Against the Grain, were up next. The Detroit speed rockers were on their final night of this excursion, and they made it count with a ripping high-speed journey of greasy, dirty Motorhead-influenced mayhem. Not exactly my thing, but they were good at what they did and many others seemed to dig ‘em.
Each time I see Night Demon, the production values seem to get better and more professional. By now, of course, I’m well-versed in the black-light stage banner with the ‘Curse of the Damned’ cover artwork, replete with red glowing eyes on the central character; the cross-design scrims erected in front of each stack of cabinets; the stage fog machine; and the multicolored floor-light system positioned on the front corners of the stage, operated by tour manager/merch guy/mascot Andrew Bansal from a control panel at the side of the stage, with ever-changing colors and strobes coordinated with the music. This time, the band have also added multi-color light panels on the floor on either side of drummer Dusty Squires. Those panels are not only synched to the light boxes at the front of the stage, but they also highlight Dusty well and keep him from being lost in the fog and darkness like he used to be. Also new for this tour? A new chalice (its predecessor having apparently shattered in a casualty of previous road battles) and a new mask for mascot Rocky. Again, the production aspects of the show just get better and better from one tour to the next.
Tonight was far and away the longest Night Demon show I’ve ever witnessed, as they blasted out 16 songs in just over an hour. The gig started unconventionally as, following their traditional Conan intro tape, the band launched into “Manticore,” an instrumental jam that provides a taste of new material from their partially-recorded second album, scheduled to be released in early 2017. Then Night Demon went directly into their classic Diamond Head cover, “Lightning to the Nations,” always a welcome selection. After “Ritual,” it was time for the ‘Curse of the Damned’ part of the program, as that album was played in its entirety, in reverse order. So the more obscure (in terms of live exposure) tunes like “Save Me Now,” “Killer” (played way faster than recorded speed) and “Run For Your Life” were up first, with the tried-n-true live favorites like “Full Speed Ahead” and “Curse of the Damned” coming near the end. I’m generally not a fan of “play the whole album” sets, but this one works because (i) every song on ‘Curse of the Damned’ is worthy; (ii) despite seeing the band 10 times before, I had never heard three of those songs played live; and (iii) the band had enough enthusiasm and energy to pull it off. If Night Demon seemed stoked to play the whole album, the audience totally seemed stoked to hear the whole album. Before I knew it, I was arm in arm with a total stranger standing next to me up front, belting out the lyrics, raising my fist and having a ball. Ah yes, the power of heavy metal. The set concluded with staples “The Chalice” and “Night Demon,” the former featuring an appearance by mascot Rocky with his chalice amidst blood-red lighting. Rocky sought me out from the stage, grabbed my neck and turned the chalice upside down in my mouth, giving me a swig of red wine, which would have been fine except that there was a piece of cork in it, haha. The chalice never used to have wine in it before, so this is yet another cool innovation. Rocky also had at least one more spectator, plus guitarist Armand, drink from the chalice. By the time “Night Demon” ended, everyone was sweaty and happy. Another fantastic show from Night Demon.
Monday, May 9, 2016
The following morning, Jen and I made it to Van Buren Street in downtown Chicago in time to catch the Megabus bound for St. Louis, Missouri. The beautiful thing about the Megabus is that the total fare we paid for two reserved seats on the upper deck was $14. The ride took about six painless, comfortable hours, after which we were deposited at the bus station in downtown St. Louis, across the street from that city’s NHL hockey arena. We spent the afternoon dodging raindrops and checking out the hockey stadium (where they were gearing up for a St. Louis Blues playoff game that night), the baseball stadium, and the Gateway Arch (sadly, most of that area is a construction zone at the moment), before meeting up with the Night Demon guys for a late lunch / early dinner at a downtown tavern where the server told us with a smile that “Cubs Suck” and asked if we were in the band Holy Grail (she saw my hoodie), which she’d actually heard of. The band’s spirits seem high, and they’re very excited about coming events, including a six-week European tour this summer capped off by a mainstage appearance at the prestigious Bang Your Head Festival in Balingen, Germany; a multiweek opening slot on the Carcass/Crowbar/Ghoul U.S. tour; and various other plans that may or may not have been announced yet. It was good to catch up with them, and good to meet Armand finally. Although new to Night Demon, he has known Jarvis and Dusty for many years, and seems to fit in well with the band, both musically and personality-wise. As a fan and friend, I certainly still miss Brent, but that’s no fault of Armand’s, and anyway, things change and sometimes you just have to move on.
Tonight’s gig was at the FUBAR on a particularly desolate stretch of Locust Street, around two miles from downtown. Jen and I had been to there once before, in March 2014 when we were on the road with Widow on the Destruction tour, so walking around inside the venue brought back many happy memories. The show tonight was on the lounge side of the venue, which is the smaller room; however, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the venue had constructed a new, much larger and nice looking stage in that room in the two years since I was here last. There were not nearly as many people in St. Louis as there had been in Chicago, unfortunately, and the two local opener bands appeared neither to bring in much of a crowd nor stick around after the sets were finished. For most of the openers, we either retreated outside to get away from the sound (although we were accosted by a constant stream of homeless people on the sidewalk when we did so) or simply watched the Blues on television getting their asses kicked by Dallas in the hockey playoff game.
Visigoth brought the fire and passion with them to St. Louis, small crowd be damned, even though Jake Rogers apparently had to go down the street to a BP station to get hot water to use onstage for his voice. There were no stage lights to speak of, just dim white ordinary room lights, but Visigoth let nothing affect them. In a way it was better for me because with a smaller crowd, there was much more one-on-one interaction with the band members. I got to contribute vocals to one chorus of “The Spell” and ended up with Jake just inches from my face as we sang “The Revenant King” chorus together. I really appreciated that Visigoth put full power and full energy into this gig, even though it had to be a letdown after the previous night’s bigger show in Chicago. They did, however, cut “Blood Sacrifice” from the set due to time constraints, so it was just a five-song Visigoth set this evening. Still, I’ll take five live songs from Visigoth over ten songs from most bands, anytime.
For their part, Night Demon had to scrap the “full-album” concept also because of time constraints, but they nonetheless played a very special 11-song set. It was probably the most perfect setlist I’d ever witnessed from the band, deftly balancing the more known and the more obscure, keeping the tempos mostly fast but having just the right amount of dynamics. There were deep cuts like “Ancient Evil” and “Killer,” plus their classic Riot cover “Road Racin’” along with all-time greats like “Mastermind” and “The Howling Man.” Plus the gig began with the body blow of “Screams in the Night” into “Full Speed Ahead,” which is simply perfect for my tastes. I made a point of watching Armand a lot more tonight. The guy has a different stage persona that Brent Woodward did, as he’s more animated and a bit flamboyant even. He plays the songs well. It’s a different feel onstage, for sure, but Armand certainly seems up to the task. One funny bit was during set closer “Night Demon,” Andrew’s lighting control board stopped functioning and the band’s multicolored floor lights went dark. Lee from Visigoth happened to be standing near the light switch for the stage, so he flipped the dim white house stage lights on so the guys wouldn’t be playing in the dark. During the triumphant instrumental part of “Night Demon,” when the band’s custom lights would ordinarily be flashing in strobe mode, Lee tried to replicate the effect by flipping the light switch for the house lights off and on in rapid succession. It was kind of hilarious. Still the band played on, because dammit that’s what Night Demon does, through personnel changes and venue restrictions and small audiences and failed equipment and everything else. I love ‘em for it, and they did me proud tonight. Set list: Screams in the Night, Full Speed Ahead, Ancient Evil, Killer, Mastermind, Ritual, The Howling Man, Curse of the Damned, Road Racin’, Chalice, Night Demon.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
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