(Metal Blade 2014)
In a truly inspired move, Swedish underground metal heroes RAM and Portrait have joined forces to put out a split CD. The pairing is surprising in some ways, given the stylistic differences between the bands. Indeed, RAM showcase more of a traditional heavy metal attack and gritty, high-pitched vocals; meanwhile, Portrait worship all things Mercyful Fate with the occult vocal style to boot. In other respects, however, this union makes perfect sense. Both bands are signed to Metal Blade Records (which also released this split, although not in the USA, apparently), and the bands’ contrasting styles actually complement each other and prevent boredom from setting in, while retaining enough overlap that the entire album sounds cohesive in spite of itself.
The format of ‘Under Command’ is interesting. Each band offers up one brand-new tune, one cover of a song by the other band, and a cover of one of their heroes. The results are nothing short of spectacular. RAM comes out of the gate spitting fire with a positively incendiary uptempo number called “Savage Machine,” which features all of the RAM trademarks executed at a ridiculously high level. Wow. This ‘Under Command’ CD is worth buying just for that one song. Next, RAM shift gears to cover “Welcome to My Funeral,” the lead track on Portrait’s 2006 cassette demo of the same name. While the song is primitive and derivative (as one might expect, given its origins at the demo stage of Portrait), it is also quite cool and RAM’s take on it is killer. Then comes RAM’s homage to KISS in the form of a slowed-down, pounding romp through “Creatures of the Night.”
Not to be outdone by their countrymen, Portrait kick off their half of the EP with a fantastic original song entitled “Martial Lead,” which manages to be fast, heavy, proggy and creepy all at the same time, showing how the band have expanded on their original Mercyful Fate trappings to develop their own sound. Then comes Portrait’s version of an old RAM song called “Blessed to Be Cursed,” a straightahead banger that works well but sounds nothing like Portrait. However, the real surprise lies in Portrait’s choice of a “hero” cover, namely Exciter’s “Aggressor.” Now, “Aggressor” isn’t from the classic Beehler/Ricci/Johnson incarnation of Exciter, but is instead a cut from the 1997 ‘The Dark Command’ album. It was a risky but brilliant choice for Portrait to attempt an Exciter song at all, much less one from the band’s unheralded and largely forgotten late 1990s era. “Aggressor” rips, and proves that Portrait could be a damn good speed/thrash metal act if they wanted to.
All in all, the ‘Under Command’ split is an experiment that has paid off handsomely. After spending 27 minutes listening to this 6-tracker, you will understand and appreciate both RAM and Portrait better. You’ll probably have a sore neck too. I’d love to see more underground metal bands adopt such a collaborative approach to their craft, rather than being locked into a competitive mindset against each other. Like the CD booklet says, “Dedicate Your Life to Heavy Metal or Die.” If we do not all hang together, then we will surely hang separately, so cheers to RAM and Portrait for joining forces to rock us all on ‘Under Command.’
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~