(We welcome back New Zealand writer Craig Hayes (Six Noises), who brings us this review of the new album by NZ’s Bulletbelt, which was released through Bandcamp just a few days ago.)
Nine Centuries is the latest hard-hitting release from New Zealand black/thrash metallers Bulletbelt. Much like their high-octane pals Midnight, Bulletbelt mine metal’s core aesthetics, and Nine Centuries duly features plenty of battle-vested and spiked-gauntleted oomph. Interestingly, though, the rip-roaring album is also somewhat bittersweet. Because Nine Centuries marks Bulletbelt’s final album with vocalist Jolene Tempest.
Tempest exited Bulletbelt late last year, along with guitarist Seth Jackson, and while singers come and go from bands all the time, Tempest’s leaving is certainly notable because her performance on Nine Centuries is so confident and impassioned. Tempest originally joined Bulletbelt not long before they recorded their second album, 2014’s Rise of the Banshee, and that release showcased the band’s burning ambitions like never before.
Obviously, some metal bands see ‘ambition’ as a dirty word in a supposedly secretive world. But metal’s not any kind of cloistered realm, right? Metal’s massive. The world over. And Bulletbelt’s founders –– drummer Steve Francis and guitarist Ross Mallon –– are old school rivetheads who’ve been determined to put Bulletbelt in front of as many fevered fans as possible since day one.
Bulletbelt have achieved a lot already; especially for a DIY band from the arse end of the world. The band have performed countless shows at home and in Australia, and they’ve opened gigs for an increasingly long list of international icons –– including Sepultura, Napalm Death, and Carcass. Bulletbelt have made a number of well-regarded videos as well. But the band’s probably most well known, internationally, for providing the title track to the cult classic heavy metal horror film Deathgasm.
Bulletbelt unashamedly want to go places, and Nine Centuries was obviously meant to build on the band’s momentum. Tempest and Jackson left well after the album was recorded, and there’s no need to dredge up any drama about that. Bands are hard work, financially and logistically. And even more so interpersonally. But it’s clear that when Bulletbelt entered the studio to record Nine Centuries they had some deadly serious creative objectives in mind.
The band embrace their influences on Nine Centuries and celebrate those over-the-top elements we love about metal. But that’s really not much of a change for Bulletbelt. What is different, is that Nine Centuries is a much grimmer release, lyrically, and the band match that narrative darkness with a rawer and more visceral sound –– reflecting, perhaps, the violence of the album’s lyrics.
That extra viciousness has been captured extremely well by producer and former Diocletian drummer Cam Sinclair (Witchrist, Heresiarch, Bölzer, etc). Bulletbelt were aiming for a more “warts-and-all” atmosphere, and Sinclair certainly sharpens the essential sonic burrs and adds increased burliness into the mix. That means Nine Centuries feels rougher-edged and heavier than Bulletbelt’s last release –– and the album’s all the better for it.
The band mix black, thrash, and traditional metal melodies (with a chunk of hardcore’s bite) on Nine Centuries. And everyone involved in the album’s recording has a lot to be proud of. However, it’s Tempest’s sigil that burns brightest on Nine Centuries.
Lyrically, Tempest focuses on the injustices and atrocities committed during the Dark Age witch trials, and that’s clearly a deeply personal topic for her to explore. She subsequently delivers the most intensely emotional (and emotionally invested) vocal performance of her career so far. And while Nine Centuries marks Tempest’s exit from Bulletbelt, she is absolutely leaving on a high note in creative terms.
The rest of Bulletbelt deliver high-powered performances too. Bassist Tim Mekalick steps up to the mark, and his warp-speed bass riffs have never sounded so integral to the weight or driving power of Bulletbelt’s sound. (See the trampling bass that underpins “Dethrone”.) The drums hit hard as well. Something Sinclair’s production wizardry ensures. And Francis has also never sounded as propulsive or energized behind the kit as he does on the new album.
Guests on Nine Centuries include Midnight’s Vanik, who kicks off the album’s best track, “Cloak the Night”, with a truly mind-melting solo. Massacre’s famed vocalist Kam Lee adds triumphant howls to “Show Me Your Throat”. And a string quartet from The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra turns up on the bombastic “Hypatia”; just to ensure sure the track is more epic-than-epic.
Galloping songs like “Nine Centuries”, “Haegtessa”, and “Orpheus” see guitarists Jackson and Mallon indulging in endless fretboard gymnastics. There are serpentine solos and skull-cracking riffs galore to enjoy. But it’s the murderous melodies on Nine Centuries that’ll snag you –– and the two guitarists provide plenty of dirty hooks.
Tempest’s impressive performance on Nine Centuries certainly puts the pressure on her recent replacement, former Human frontman Scott Spatcher-Harrison. Bulletbelt are nothing if not relentless in pursuit of their goals, but Spatcher-Harrison’s arrival means an entirely different dynamic from here on in. So it’ll be fascinating to see where Bulletbelt’s artistic ambitions take them next.
Ultimately, Nine Centuries is Bulletbelt’s best release thus far –– both musically and thematically. Sure, the line-up that recorded the album is no more. But that change in circumstances doesn’t alter the fact that it’s a formidable release. The album sees the band’s creative cauldron firmly on the boil, and while Nine Centuries contains harrowing tales, Bulletbelt also turn the volume all the way up on metal’s crucial theatrics. That means there are abundant “fuck yeah” fist-raising moments woven into the album’s dark stories. And Nine Centuries is a triumphant send-off for Tempest.