(DGR reviews the new album by Italy’s Hour of Penance, which will be released on January 27 by Prosthetic Records.)
There is a temptation when writing reviews to believe that everything needs to have some sort of deeper meaning attached to it — especially when it comes to music, because the idea of describing sound with words is one that can paralyze a person. So whenever something is pretty much exactly what it says on the box, you can often find yourself spinning endlessly.
Italy’s long-running Hour Of Penance have made a name for themselves in the brutal death scene since their full-length starter in 2003 as one of the forebears of the hyperblasting death metal bands who now seem to extrude out of that country like few others. Since 2010’s Paradogma, Hour Of Penance have really found a sound for themselves, a relentless battering of metal that is driven almost entirely by a wall of hellfire-belching guitars and drumwork that exists somewhere between Gatling gun and machine gun in terms of speed.
The two albums that followed Paradogma, Sedition and Regicide, were two different interpretations of an overall theme, never really shifting too much from the main foundation of lightspeed death metal. I’ve found myself wondering recently if I have an every-other-album sort of pattern with Hour Of Penance, or if the band seem to enjoy making every other album slim and to-the-point, or a massive work.
Paradogma felt huge, and Sedition was the opposite, coming in slim and cutting like a knife. Regicide — especially if you found all the extra tracks they put out for it — was a HUGE slab of music that was relentless to the point that, by the end, relentless ferocity felt normal.
Hour Of Penance’s new album, Cast The First Stone, sticks closer to Sedition than it does Regicide, coming in at a sleek nine songs and close to thirty-five minutes of music. However, that thirty-five minutes of music is a lot like being tossed into a human-sized tumble dryer with a handful of cinderblocks as your accompaniment. It is a high-speed beating that seems determined to toss its listeners into a hurricane, and truth be told, as I’ve limped out frazzled on the other end, I’ve found myself anticipating going back again and again.
What is interesting about Cast The First Stone is that although it leans closer in sound to the sleeker and more surgical approach of Sedition (as opposed to the sheer ten-ton-hammer bludgeoning of Regicide), it tries to tread the line between the two discs, striking an almost perfect balance of short and to-the-point annihilation, with big, hammer riffs that could be mistaken for impact events. You even have some of the more cinematic orchestration that was the subtle backbone of Paradogma leaking into the mix from time to time.
“XXI Century Imperial Crusade” opens the album with said cinematic pyrotechnics as part of its opener, but Hour Of Penance waste no time in letting you know that you’re still in for some snare-heavy death metal. Given Cast The First Stone’s subject matter, it is almost fitting that a lot of the writing on this album feels martial. Everything is insanely tight and super-precise, driven fully by the battering ram behind them, and the vocals proving to be just as percussive.
Where “XXI Century Imperial Crusade” does seek to make a point in the name of Cast The First Stone is that instead of letting every song serve as a part of this big, amorphous wall of death metal, the track seeks to individualize itself. The album is not one, massive death metal effort divided into ten or so songs like its predecessor, but instead nine different surgical attacks that all happen to have Hour Of Penance as their driving force.
The following pairing of “Cast The First Stone” and its sibling “Burning Bright” help hammer that point home. Although if you really want to hear some orchestration kick into the Hour Of Penance formula, with a song that actually resurrects some of the grooves from “XXI Century Imperial Crusade”, you’ll need to seek out album closer “Damnatio Memoriae”, because they add some brief symphonic work to close out the whole thunderstorm of riff-work that comprises the song.
It’s an interesting choice that “Cast The First Stone” comes so close to the front of the album because it is a highlight track and a showstopper of a song. The opening lead guitar melodies, which are as melodic as I can remember Hour Of Penance ever getting, worm their way through the opening section of the song enough that you can visualize their tendrils spreading throughout the song’s runtime, even as the rhythm guitar takes over as the driving force and Hour Of Penance decide to step on the gas.
With a tremendous wall of notes style guitar solo and percussive verses that spill back into that opening guitar segment, “Cast The First Stone” shows why it gets to be the title track of the album. It is a song that is worth the price of admission on its own.
“Cast The First Stone” actually isn’t the only time where Hour Of Penance add in a catchy lead guitar section that seems to bore into a listener’s head, but it is certainly the most overt. One similar to it sneaks its way into the song “Horn Of Flies” a few tracks later. “Burning Bright”, on the other hand, is a standard-bearer for Hour Of Penance, sounding as if the band felt they absolutely had to dish out their best brutal death metal song, in case people were worried they might be leaning too hard into the groove-heavy side instead.
“Burning Bright” is where Hour Of Penance demonstrate how unfalteringly precise they are, even with an air-raid siren buried in the background of the song. The opening riff alone should be recognizable as a pretty common death metal buzz saw riff. Not to put too fine a point on it, but hearing that opening section rev itself up, then continually come back like a force undeterred by what else the rest of the song is unleashing, becomes a constant theme throughout the whole song, wrapping “Burning Bright” up into a neat, little package.
It has, however, become a trend for Hour Of Penance to have a new drummer sitting behind the kit for what seems to be every album. Stepping into those shoes this time around is drummer Davide Billia, whose list of projects has him firmly ensconced in the death metal world. Having to hang with a veritable legion of death metal blasters before him is no issue, and Hour Of Penance show no fear of any lineup change, putting the drums firmly at the forefront on Cast The First Stone, so much so that it feels like the formula of the band is to have every instrument serve as part of an overall percussion line. The guitars seem to move with every hit and rest in between on the kit, and the drums seek to match every note change.
Basically, that synchronization transforms Cast The First Stone into an album that proves to be remarkably headbang-worthy, despite the seemingly never-ending assault on the instrumental front. There’s always something to lock onto with each song, meaning that after the close-to thirty-five minutes you get with Cast The First Stone, you’re liable to walk out with a monster of a bangover. It almost feels like the closing segments of “Iron Fist” were written solely to make that result happen. That closing section is almost neck-snapping in just how hard it hits.
Hour Of Penance’s bread and butter is still the aforementioned unrelenting ferocity, though. The almost non-stop blastwork and slow-down-for-nothing approach to death metal happens to be the particular branch in the brutal death tree that the band have chosen to carve their name into. At this point in their career, too, there’s been a veritable smorgasbord of demonstrations by the band on that overall theme, and the ones that seem to work the best are the ones where the group get sleek and surgical with their approach.
Hour Of Penance have shown time and time again that they can write some absolutely huge ‘behemoth which bestrides the Earth’ style brutal death metal, with guitar sections so big that the songs themselves almost become an afterthought in favor of becoming the construction blocks of one massive beast. Cast The First Stone is a different creature, instead composed of nine different, sharpened, ready-to-draw-blood weapons of war. Each song is its own particular battle, and they are all different enough that you actually have songs that will make you halt and hit the repeat button.
Cast The First Stone is another feather in the cap for these master tradesmen, an album where the only frustration is that by the time you hit the closing symphonic notes — which seem to goddamned come out of nowhere every time — you find yourself wishing you had just a tiny bit more.
The album can be acquired via the links below, and after the links you can stream three tracks from the album via Bandcamp.