Release Title: Violent Creed of Vengeance
Label: Cruz del Sur
Release Date: April 1st, 2023
Location: Canada/ United States/ Finland
Digital Price: $8 CAD
If you’re starting a power metal act in the early 2020s, you’ve got to accept that your chances of cutting through are slim at best. Certainly you’ll have no trouble keeping any crowd of four-beers-deep festival attendees happy for 45 minutes – and rightly so – but twinkling keyboard melodies, campy artwork and overblown lyrics will rarely hold the average fair-weather fan’s attention long enough for them to splash out on your records and get talking about you after their depressed, sticky coach journey home. Where new bands in the post-2010 sword-and-sorcery scene have garnered sufficient respect to earn a cult following, they’ve done so, more often than not, by taking a leaf out of the rulebook written by the legendary Cirith Ungol throughout the 1980s, delivering dragon-slaying anthems stripped of symphonic adornment and offering instead a musical experience and visual aesthetic tinged with darkness and grit. Visigoth, Eternal Champion and Megaton Sword undeniably do it well.
International five-piece Smoulder have made their name by taking this principle further than the rest, not only cutting out the keyboards and costumes but also slowing things all the way down and packaging their tales of high adventure in the grander and heavier textures of doom metal. Only rarely in their discography to date have they stepped on the gas, and even then only in isolated and restrained nods to their trad influences – see by way of example the track ‘Bastard Steel’ from 2019’s debut full-length Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring.
Violent Creed of Vengeance will doubtless deliver for those among Smoulder’s listenership who’ve sat through each spin to date eagerly awaiting a burst of speed: the title track, also the album opener, is the kind of mid-paced galloper you’d expect from the modern-day school of Manilla Road worshippers, offering some genuinely interesting melodic moments in its characteristically soaring chorus and closing out with a lengthy and well-crafted solo courtesy of guitarist Collin Wolf. Follow-up The Talisman & the Blade, far from petering out after this energetic start, abandons Smoulder’s pretensions to doom orthodoxy entirely, bursting out with high-paced drums underneath a ripping lead hook that becomes an easy earworm after just a couple of listens. Sarah Ann Vincent’s unmistakable vocals are also back with a vengeance (get it?) – they’re still raw, they’re still powerful, and they still break periodically into the kind of magnificently enraged growls and shrieks that we’ve come to expect from her.
I’ve no doubt this will already have many record-collecting hands reaching for wallets (or the online equivalent), and more power to those with that insatiable need for speed. The more committed doomsters, however – and I number myself among them – will surely wonder what’s happened to the pre-eminent Arcane Power Doom act currently on offer in today’s scene. Third track Midnight in the Mirror World is something of a relief in this regard, demonstrating as it does that Smoulder still know how to plod and stomp. As the title suggests, it’s a gloomy number whose interlocking guitar lines evoke plenty of caliginous atmosphere. It’s also closer in length to the band’s erstwhile average, demanding attention to the immersive narrative offered by the lyrics. There’s less of the goosebump-inducing epicness that we get from the chorus of, say, Ilian of Garathorm on the previous album (incidentally the track that first got this reviewer into Smoulder), but it feels like a refinement of their earlier sound.
That’s more or less it for the really recognisably doom material on this record, until the album closer. Path of Witchery is a rip-roaring ride that will surely become a live favourite, while side B opener Victims of Fate resumes Smoulder’s engagement with author Michael Moorcock’s influential fantasy mythos – though in a way that sadly left this reviewer a little cold despite a couple of halfway-decent singalong moments. Penultimate track Spellforger, another fast one and the shortest song on the album, is undeniably tremendous fun, and I can see this number kicking off a good few late-set pits in months and years to come. However, it’s only with Dragonslayer’s Doom that things finally slow back down again, and to impressive effect, its near-10-minute runtime contrasting favourably with the previous short blast. This is the track which, to my mind, shows that Smoulder can still offer something no one else can. The lyrics paint a picture but don’t crowd us with theatrical silliness; the riffs soar slowly, allowing our imagination to breathe; bassist Adam Blake even comes in with a solo of his own, but it weaves seamlessly into the sonic adventure instead of coming across as overblown virtuosity.
None of this is to say, of course, that great doom can’t ever pick up the pace – just listen to some of the near-thrashy triplets on Trouble’s 1987 classic Run to the Light. Even Black Sabbath were famous for breaking out the funk in the second half of songs across a substantial chunk of their smoke-hazed early output. And granted, Violent Creed of Vengeance still offers something unique if we consider its earthy, rich sound, by means of which it out-heavies a major percentage of today’s trad revivalists. Nevertheless, it’s a sad truth that, more often than not, doom these days has to be slow to be recognisable as doom, and one can’t help thinking that the less Smoulder bear this in mind in their songwriting going forward, the less they’ll stand out in a scene where respect and cult status are hard-earned.
If you can’t get enough of spells, dragons and witchcraft in your metal, if you want something a little heavier than usual, and if you’ve got time for a few pounders and moments of atmospheric brilliance, then get this record. For my part, I hope Smoulder will resolve their slew of fantastic but conflicting ideas in favour of a more unmistakably doom sound in their future output.
Listen to and order the album:
Follow the band: