(It looks like Andy Synn had as much fun writing this review of Bleeding Antlers‘ debut album as he did listening to it — and he had a LOT of fun doing that.)
Heavy Metal is, as we all know, a “no fun allowed” zone.
It’s a place for serious musicians to write serious songs about serious subjects, riddled with serious darkness, while wearing their most serious faces.
The thing is, no-one seems to have told London lotharios Bleeding Antlers that, because their debut album, Stagmata (yes, there’s even a pun in the title) is one of the most ridiculously riff-happy and unashamedly fun experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.
Don’t go making the mistake of thinking the band are a joke, however.
While the group clearly aren’t taking themselves too seriously, the music itself is more than capable of standing on its own two (or four) feet, while also answering the age-old question… what would happen if you took the catchiest bits of Candlemass, the hookiest parts of Paradise Lost, added a dash of the grim grandeur of Primordial and a touch of almost Nu-Metal-ish groove, and then laced the whole thing with a hefty helping of folk-goth glamour, Hammer-horror camp, and drunken satanic swagger?
Well, you’d have a hell of a good time, I can tell you that.
Now, I must point out that, at thirteen tracks and just over sixty-five minutes, Stagmata is far too long for its own good, and ends up feeling a little bit bloated by the end.
That being said, however, trying to decide what tracks the band could/should have cut is no easy task. They’re just all so damned catchy and absolutely packed to the gills with bombastic, balls-to-the-wall riffs and audacious, anthemic hooks, that it’s almost impossible to choose!
Case in point, the album opens with the seductive stomp and slither of “Murder (and the Strength of the Absurd”) – just under six-and-a-half minutes of dramatic, doom-laden riffs and sinister, spine-tingling melodies, all topped off with a hauntingly hypnotic vocal performance that seems to be channelling both the ghost of the dearly-departed Layne Staley (Alice In Chains) and the spirit of the thankfully still with us Nick Holmes (Paradise Lost) – which immediately lets you know that this is one album which isn’t here to fuck around.
It then rolls right on into the “psychedelic sea-shanty” (the band’s own words) of “Half Hanged Mary”, whose growling guitars and evocative vocals tell a story of false judgement and supernatural vengeance set to a tune that sits somewhere between the nerve-jangling Neo-Folk of King Dude and the prodigal doomery of Primordial, followed in quick succession by the humongously hooky “Mooncalf” (which, in a just world, would be a radio-conquering hit single by now) and the equally massive, extravagantly moody, strains of “The Forefather”.
As a matter of fact the entire first half of the album is just one killer cut after the other, from the utterly intoxicating dirge of “You, Me, and Oliver Reed”, to the sombre pseudo-ballad “This Is The Place of Dead Things”, culminating in the hellish hymn of willing damnation that is “O’Satan”.
The only time the album really stumbles over its own feet is with the band’s totally out of left field cover of “Pony” by Ginuwine (yes, you read that correctly), as while it’s stupidly good fun (even if you hate it, you can’t help but applaud the group’s sheer chutzpah), it’s also a teensy bit distracting, and pulls the listener’s focus away from appreciating the band’s own (far superior) compositions.
Thankfully although the second half of the album features a few weaker tracks (neither the sinister shimmy of “King In Flowers” or the Nu-Doom strut of “The Gentlemen Dogs” are bad songs, to be clear, they’re just not quite as strong as the rest of the record) there’s still more than enough left in the band’s tank – including the gloomy acoustic strains of “This Ain’t Jonestown” (think Agalloch-meets-Alice In Chains) and lethally hooky late-album highlight “Mother’s Ruin” – to ensure that you’re going to want to stick around all the way to the end.
And what an end it is, with “The Last Prayer” taking and combining all the very best bits of the band’s sound thus far, from devilish Doom to gloomy Grunge to foreboding Folk… not to mention lashings of malevolent melody… to deliver a climactic closing anthem for the ages.
Honestly, and I’ll swear to this on whatever book you want me to, Stagmata really is the gift that keeps on giving.
And while there’s probably a little too much of it for you to be able to down it all in one go (not and keep it down, anyway), I doubt that’s going to stop you from going straight back for another round. But don’t worry, the first one’s on me…