(In this post Andy Synn reviews the new album by A Hill To Die Upon from Illinois.)
Sometimes when you’re confronted with unexpected bouts of synchronicity, it’s best to pay attention to what’s being said. You might just learn something.
Case in point, at least three times in the last week, in separate conversations, someone has raised the point to me that A Hill To Die Upon (hereafter referred to as AHTDU) are one of the few bands “who sound like Behemoth… but don’t really sound like Behemoth”. And it’s true. Despite clearly holding the Polish blasphemers in high regard, AHTDU have always managed to remain somehow sonically separate enough to stand as their own entity.
I’m not sure exactly why. It’s maybe a combination of things. A tendency to use interesting, almost baroque chord patterns. A signature riffing style that illuminates, rather than imitates. Little twists and tweaks to their approach, a rhythmic shift here, a touch of esoteric instrumentation there, and a vocal style that heaves with righteous fury and passion. And blast beats. Lots of blast beats. All molded and shaped in a way that remains instantly recognisable and distinctive.
It’s hard to quantify. But it’s clear to me. AHTDU are their own breed of monster, plain and simple.
I can tell you now that this is one of the best albums I’ve heard so far this year. The riffs bite and howl with primal fury, the drums thunder and growl with elemental force, the vocals rage with pain and passion… the band’s relentless focus is nothing short of astonishing. Yet it’s also an album touched with a fierce creative spirit and a strong sense of atmosphere and drama, one which makes it more than just a collection of seething sound and blind fury.
There’s a sense of drive and purpose underlying every scorching riff and thunderous drum roll — from the firestorm aggression of “Cloven Hoof Hava Nagila”, through the sledgehammer riffage and venomous hooks of “Unyielding Anguish”, to the dark, crushing majesty of “Satan Speaks”, there’s always a method to the madness.
In the midst of their own signature sound, the band are careful to interweave their influences, metallic or otherwise, with sublime subtlety. There’s a touch of Naglfar to the turbulent tremolo melodies of “A Jester Arrayed In Burning Gold”, whose grandiose vibe is accentuated by the interplay of Adam Cook’s bestial roar and Beckie Frey’s beautiful clean vocals, while the creeping, crawling chords of “Rime (Jerub-Ba-al)” position AHTDU as close cousins to everyone’s favourite Sons of Northern Darkness, Immortal. To top it off, the band’s reinterpretation of “O Death”, a traditional American folk song of unknown origin, is utterly spellbinding, melding sombre melody with grim intensity.
One of the strongest factors in AHDTU’s favour is their lyrical content, something which the band clearly spend a lot of time poring over. Over the course of Holy Despair the brothers Cook draw from multiple sources of revelation and inspiration, melding together elements of Judaeo-Christian doctrine (“Cloven Hoof Hava Nagila”), Norse mythology (“Let The Ravens Have My Eyes”), Tolkien fantasy (“Hæðen”), and even ancient Greek necromancy (“Nekyia”), into one cohesive whole. They have a fantastic knack for taking disparate themes and finding the central threads which link them, combining and contrasting this wealth of fantastic imagery to create their own particular vision.
Speaking of central threads, the shadow of the First World War hangs heavy over several songs on the album, with both “Nekyia” (“We dug a trench in the Rhineland / long as wind, payment for sin.”) and “Satan Speaks” (which draws from the poetry of a pre-Christianity C.S. Lewis) touching closely on the horrors of war. There’s even a suggestion that both “Hæðen” (which heavily references Tolkien, who was himself inspired by his experiences during the war) and “Somme” continue to explore this underlying theme. And it’s exactly those sorts of subtleties and hidden depths that help define the band and set them as a breed apart.
Earlier on I said I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that made the band special. Now I am.
At the very heart of things they’re simply story tellers.
For them it’s not enough just to lay down some riffs and screams and call it Death Metal, it’s about more than that. It’s about writing songs which grow and develop, which have depth and purpose, which tell a story, woven together from strands of myth and legend, thought and philosophy, and imbuing them with a true sense of power and emotion.
You can’t fake that passion, that drive. It’s not something you can imitate. You have to truly feel it, know it, live it.
And that passion bleeds through on every moment of this album.
Holy Despair will be released on April 22. It can be ordered on CD, with related mercy, at this location, and it’s also available on Bandcamp: