(Killer Metal 2015)
Y’know, 2015 won’t be remembered as a particularly riveting year for the thrash metal genre. Aside from Slayer’s tepid ‘Repentless’ album (and Annihilator, I guess), most of the bigger acts spent the year either touring or on the sidelines, without releasing new product. (By contrast, 2016 promises a tsunami of new thrash from the likes of Megadeth, Anthrax, Testament, Heathen, Death Angel, Hirax, Destruction, Flotsam & Jetsam and so on.) Nonetheless, a few stalwart underground acts (Breathless, Gama Bomb, Hatchet, Critical Solution, Running Death, Weresquatch, among others) did their part, taking the torch and keeping the thrash flame burning brightly. Add to that short list of excellent 2015 thrash the second album from Connecticut’s classy thrashers, Shallow Ground.
Let me be clear: ‘Embrace the Fury’ is not a good thrash record. It is a great thrash record. It deserves serious consideration for thrash album of the year. The band worked on this album for the better part of two years, and it shows. The songs, the production, the mix, the guitar tone, the performances, and even the cover art stand proudly head and shoulders above Shallow Ground’s already strong 2012 debut, ‘The End of Everything.’ Straight out of the gate, Shallow Ground make a powerful statement with “Once Again,” a bonafide neckbreaker with a devastating speed riff, a moshable bridge, and a stellar, surprising melodic interlude. The song’s lyrics, which sing the praises of circle pits, fit the music to perfection, even if the song’s title is, at least in part, an inside joke (attendees of the Warriors of Metal Festival might relate). “Once Again” is not only Shallow Ground’s finest moment to date, but it also gets my vote for thrash song of the year. But this record doesn’t let up. The mighty “Khan” comes blasting out of the speakers next like a demon on a slingshot from hell, with another fantastic thrash riff and vocalist Keith Letourneau bellowing an invitation (command?) that we take a drink from the cup of destruction. This is compelling stuff, folks.
Look, I’m not going to go song by song through the entire 9-song, 43-minute running time because this review would be even more longwinded and overwrought than it already is. Suffice it to say that the quality and classiness of Shallow Ground shine through on every cut, from the ode to Japanese Kamikaze pilots (“Brace for Impact”) to an original crusher from 1988 that the band decided to dust off (“Human Flame”) to a balls-out ripper (“Class Warfare”) to the head-exploding closer (“Slayer of the Gods”). Every single song boasts quality riffage, interesting lyrics, stellar guitarwork courtesy of Letourneau and Tim Smith, and yes, memorable hooks. My biggest beef with many of today’s young thrash bands is that, while they can rage like mofos, they can’t seem to write a song and their records end up being undifferentiated walls of energy. Not so for Shallow Ground. From the first time I listened to ‘Embrace the Fury,’ most of the songs left a distinct mark on my brain. They are sufficiently different and unique from each other to stand alone as separate tracks, yet they all thrash mightily (okay, not the clean instrumental take-a-breather track, “Eye of the Storm,” which gives goosebumps in its own way) and fit cohesively as a unified album under the Shallow Ground banner. I think a lot of the reason for this is that Shallow Ground are not johnny come latelies. They were here in the 1980s. They’re not trying to mimic or copy something that happened before they were born. Instead, they are playing the music they played more than a quarter century ago, the same music that flows through their veins and powers their hearts. It makes a difference.
A word about the vocals. Singer/guitarist Keith Letourneau has taken flak from certain quarters about his voice. He’s not a screamer or a growler or even a classic metal singer. Instead, Letourneau has this kind of gruff shout that reminds me a bit of a more metal Gary Meskil from Pro-Pain. He may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but he is (i) instantly recognizable as himself, as opposed to all these cookie cutter thrash vocalists around today; (ii) emotive and powerful; and (iii) totally clear in his enunciation, such that you can understand almost every word without poring over the lyric sheet. To my ears, Keith has improved his delivery since ‘The End of Everything.’ He’s also been lowered in the mix, so that the guitars can rightfully carry the songs. My view is that the vocals in no way detract from ‘Embrace the Fury’ and in fact add to the energy, vibe and effectiveness of the songs.
If the music business were just, Shallow Ground would be signed to Nuclear Blast and getting massive touring opportunities to bring their brand of classy thrash around the world. Instead, they’re on the small Killer Metal Records label (also home to the likes of Lords of the Trident) and eagerly hoping for the chance to play their music for the masses beyond the friendly confines of New England. Promoters, booking agents, connoisseurs of fine thrash metal: This is a call to arms. Get a copy of ‘Embrace the Fury.’ Blast it. Embrace the fury it invokes. And hail old-school American thrash metal!
~ Review by Kit Ekman~