This album came out a couple of months ago already, but I’m just now getting around to writing the review for this most worthy effort. Substratum are a traditional heavy metal band from Seattle, Washington, who released their self-titled debut album via Swords& Chains Records at the end of 2016. A three-song demo cassette entitled Rough Rider followed in early 2017. After some delays, Substratum’s second album, Permission to Rock, finally saw the light of day in CD format this spring via Divebomb Records. (Interestingly, the band took advantage of the time lag to write and record six additional songs, released concurrently with Permission to Rock in the form of a strong EP entitled Stratosphere, so keep an eye out for that one too.) Substratum are an easy band to pull for. Here’s why: They believe in building community and supporting the scene. They routinely show up at festivals where they aren’t even playing, not to promote themselves but to hang out, rock out and support their friends. They contribute artwork/graphic design to bands and festivals. They even organized their own successful festival, the NW Metal Fest, in Seattle this spring. They don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. We need more unselfish, giving bands like Substratum in our little corner of the heavy metal universe, for sure.
In light of the above, I’m especially pleased to report Permission to Rock is a smasher of an album. Substratum remain very much the same band who recorded the 2016 debut; indeed, they still play classic U.S. heavy metal, featuring the compelling vocals of Amy Lee Carlson and the terrific guitar riffs of Jonny Haynes and Max Nazaryan. But Substratum have unquestionably taken a step forward on Permission to Rock. The songwriting is tighter, stronger and more consistently memorable. They’ve trimmed away the fat and focused on delivering a batch of killer tracks, infused with perhaps a bit more rock’n’roll spirit this time around (see “Zero to Infinity,” for example). Songs like “Rough Rider,” “To Nothing, To None” and “Exxtremer (Permission to Rock)” have been staples of Substratum’s live set for some time. As a result, they are battle-tested and primed to strike for maximum impact. “Cemetery of State” is a knockout and just might be my favorite on the album. It is a longer tune, weighing in at 7 minutes, but it feels much shorter, sporting a magnificent chorus and a couple of nifty tempo changes. Another highlight is the three-minute closer, “Up on Wheels,” whose ripping main riff and breathless arrangement take no prisoners and deliver an exclamation point to conclude the proceedings with a flourish. Carlson sings her ass off on this record, summoning grit and power galore, and cementing her place as one of the finest vocalists (male or female) in the new wave of American heavy metal. Guitarists Haynes and Nazaryan supply a cache of killer riffs and solos, but also showcase an unexpected dimension with a pair of delicate, classy acoustic interludes, “Vulpeca” and “Triangulum,” that lend a sense of dynamics to the listening experience. Nicely done.
Don’t listen to Tipper Gore and the PMRC. They lost, so you don’t need permission to rock. But if you’re a self-respecting metalhead who loves the classic style delivered with skill and reverence, then you definitely need Permission to Rock. Substratum stand proudly in the top tier of new traditional metal bands, even though many haven’t discovered them yet. Check them out and spread the word. This album deserves to be heard, and the band is absolutely worthy of your support. I’ll look forward to seeing them at the next underground U.S. metal fest I attend. Hopefully Substratum will be on the bill, but I know I can count on them being there either way.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~