(AM Records, 2016
In January 2015, the new band christened with an old moniker was born. Flotsam and Jetsam, the legendary Phoenix-based speed metallers, were set for an overhaul. With only singer Eric AK Knutson remaining from their original, mid-’80s lineup, the revamped band entered the studio aiming for a career renaissance. They emerged with a virtual masterpiece, a “Smoking Gun” in their recent self-titled 12th album.
If Eric AK and co. have a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders, it would be understandable. After all, Flotsam and Jetsam have spent the better part of the past 30 years trying to thrive under the shadow of Jason Newsted. The former Metallica bassist and founding Flots member only played on the debut album, but that novel fact -- not to mention Newsted’s ferocious playing on Doomsday For the Deceiver -- has seemingly clouded the band’s entire subsequent career. Furthermore, Flotsam’s myriad accomplishments and consistently-strong albums have not only been overshadowed by the famous Big 4 of American thrash, but also the “second tier” of bands such as Testament, Exodus, Overkill, and Death Angel. Flotsam, meanwhile, kept on touring and releasing stellar albums like No Place for Disgrace, Cuatro, and 2012’s Ugly Noise.
On Flotsam and Jetsam, the band of that same name has dropped a brick on the speed-metal accelerator. Gone are the slower tempos and groove-oriented riffs of much of their post-’80s material; enter a return to the blisteringly fast riffs, high-ranging vocals, and searing guitar leads and harmonies of their classic ‘80s material. Perhaps their most exuberant and exciting record since No Place in 1988, this self-titled new album serves as a triumphant call to arms. That’s not to imply that there was anything wrong with the slower grooves and relatively simpler song structures of Ugly Noise, a record I very much enjoy and recommend. But as the “seven trumpets roar” their warning above the charging gallops of opener “Seventh Seal,” Flotsam and Jetsam sound re-energized and re-awakened.
Much of the credit for both the band’s remarkable consistency and current resurgence should go to Knutsen’s vocals. His clean, impassioned, and high-ranging singing draws sharp distinction from the harsher vocal approach of most thrash bands. Indeed, Knutsen’s melodic vocals may unfortunately negatively impact the band’s recognition level in the speed/thrash metal community. But even if that speculation rings true at all, it does nothing to diminish the quality of his contribution to this new album. He may not quite hit the eardrum-busting highs of tunes like “Fade to Black” and “Escape from Within,” from the old days, but he still sounds pristine and oh-so pleasing to the metal-headed ears.
As for the rest of the band, this rearranged, somewhat old-school lineup hits it out of the proverbial park. If the bass lines sound extra booming, crisp, and driving, that probably has something to do with the rejoining of Michael Spencer, who was the original replacement for Jason Newsted and played on the No Place… masterwork. The guitar tandem of classic (1984-’99) member Michael Gilbert, back since 2010, and relative newcomer Steve Conley deliver the crunchy juggernaut of speed metal; they also trade the tastiest of leads and share fantastic harmonies with equal aplomb. New drummer Jason Bittner solidifies the Flots’ rhythmic attack with his powerful and propulsive performance.
All the individual musical elements on Flotsam and Jetsam are impressive in and of themselves, but it’s the quality of the riffs and songs that rise above standard thrash fare. “Life Is A Mess” is a blitzkrieging juggernaut, yet it features the catchiest riffs in the pre-chorus and chorus. This charming ode to the catharsis of blowing off steam in a moshpit is followed by the pummeling “Taser,” which contrasts brilliantly the blazing speed in the verses and chorus with doomy half-time riffs. That dynamism and versatility is highlighted in the ultra-harmonized and galloping “Iron Maiden,” which unsurprisingly sounds like something off Powerslave or the Keeper of the Seven Keys albums. “L.O.T.D.,” by contrast, is an aggressive and eviscerating blast of throwback speed metal that wouldn’t sound out of place on Doomsday For the Deceiver or Kill ‘Em All.
Other standouts on Flotsam and Jetsam include the driving and dynamic “Time to Go,” and the monstrous “Smoking Gun,” featuring some of the most brutal and infectious riffing in all of Flotsam’s catalog. That chorus is a stomp-a-long, sing-a-long thing of beauty; that’s no hyperbole right there. Album closer “Forbidden Territories” starts with a march-like crescendo of guitar solos and counter-melodies, and then proceeds through an epic procession of speed, timely groove, and just right the pinch of catchiness. It’s a fitting end to one of the most exciting albums by a veteran speed/thrash band in many a crescent moon. Buy it, or be square; and no, that’s a hip thing, no matter what Huey Lewis once sang.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot