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3 Inches of Blood, for me, were always a band that were a source of frustration, an example of unfulfilled potential. Since I got into them after hearing their first single - the stupidly excellent Destroy the Orcs - on Bruce Dickinson's radio show back in 2003, I was continually hoping they would improve, almost willing them to get better after the subsequent albums failed to completely live up to my initial excitement.
They always suffered from two big stumbling blocks, of course, the first of which was a basic lack of songwriting chops. Their albums, regardless of the ever-rotating personnel, tended to each spawn a couple of real metal masterclasses which kept the company of a lot of other more modest songs. Though yet to write a bad song, the constant high-speed galloping style they rigorously adhered to resulted in many of the less inspired tracks, cut off from a voice of their own, simply folding into one another.
The most common criticism 3IOB ever faced though, was an obvious one; Jamie Hooper. Despite being one of the founders, his presence in the band always seemed a bit hard to fathom, a bit like an experiment that somehow found its way into the world at large, and managed to hang around despite making not a great deal of sense.
His yelping hardcore vocal style is obviously very much at odds with the more traditional approach of the rest of the crew, but despite his voice generally being just plain annoying, there were times when his exchanges with falsetto wailer Cam Pipes added and extra bit of depth to a fairly limited band.
Of course, they couldn't just have him standing in the background barking every now and again as a point of emphasis, and the band's efforts to give him and Pipes an equal share of the spotlight led to continuous, chaotic vocal duelling that only went on to futher worsen their problem with variation, robbing the songs of any hooks
This lack of diversity was only intensified by the production job on their last album, Fire Up the Blades. Their then-label, Roadrunner, had always seemed to want the street cred of having an 'old skool' band on their books but weren't keen on the sticky problem of actually trying to market a traditional metal band to their target teenymosher audience. Always keen to big up how X-TREEM 3IOB were, they pushed things even further on that album by putting one of their golden boys, Joey Jordison, in the producer's chair (even sitting in on the writing process), and the pro-tools happy, everything-flatter-than-everything-else sound he inflicted smothered the album into an exhausting drag.
But then everything seemed to change all at once - all of a sudden they were free from Roadrunner's oily mits, and Hooper - sitting out touring after doing in his vocal chords - was out of the band permanently with very little fanfare, guitarist Justin Hagberg taking over the throat-splitting duties.
With new hosts Century Media - not always known for being the most caring, sharing of labels, it has to be said - apparently giving them free reign to record whatever the hell they wanted, the remaining members have finally tapped a vein of creativity, and in Here Waits Thy Doom have produced a fourth album that at long last makes it look like the potential they once showed may be fulfilled.
Under the weathered eye of Jack Endino, Pipes, Hagberg and Shane Clark have explored their newfound freedom by writing a crop of songs that delve further back into their influences (the 70s being namechecked along with the 80s now) and can stand on their own two feet as individual tunes with their own distinct identites.
Hooper's departure, and the decision to replace him from within their own ranks, has led to a bigger change in the way things are run than would superficially appear to be the case - Pipes is now very much the frontman, and with Hagberg keeping himself busy on guitar duties they have a harsh vocalist content to perform a secondary role to the main man.
This new arrangment is as much a breath of fresh air for the band as it is for the weary listener - gone are the clamouring vocal battles that cluttered the songs, and the music benefits endlessly from being given more room to express itself when Pipes isn't singing. The songs now boast that elusive variety, with styles that wouldn't suit the screeching vocals of the erstwhile Hooper now properly explored.
Opener Battles and Brotherhood is fairly standard (though no less good for it) power metal, but right from the second track, Rock in Hell - a NWOBHM-ish effort that features some Saxon boogie on the upbeat riffs - the difference is apparent.
On top of all that, Hagberg's vocals are quite simply a vast improvement over his predecessor, rolling, fluid growls that fit surprisingly well with the music (though this is also down to their more sparing, careful use).
There are still plainly visible limitations to be observed - mainly that Pipes constant falsetto remains a little tiring, when a more restrained approach would benefit some of the songs, but the band do well with what they have. His shrieking on the groovy 70s-flavoured Preacher's Daughter is pretty ridiculous, but the song is good enough to survive it, the organ playing from Hagberg and a silly gang vocal section among the highlights.
Elsewhere, Call of the Hammer is a short, sharp burst of thrash metal where Hagberg's vocals are cleverly utilised on a sparse chorus, and Execution Tank, the longest song they have yet written, finally encapsulates that 'evil' vibe they have often tried and failed to latch onto in the past. The long, instrumental intro builds suitable menace, and Pipes' vocals are a perfect fit for ever-escalating chorus.
In between the more rock-centric songs and the galloping power/speed metal they are most known for, a bit of room has also been left for a venture into more epic territory. The spirit of adventure is palpable in the swaying chorus to At the Foot of the Great Glacier, while the despairing lead melodies of All of them Witches imbue a forboding atmosphere.
Being so different to the album that predeced it, this new beginning for 3 Inches of Blood is almost like a second debut for the band. New label, new vocalist, new approach to songs and even a strange bit of cover art that gives a wide bearth to the cartoonish style expected of them, it is a clean break in every sense.
With no intereference from a label trying to force a square peg into a round hole and a leaner line-up that isn't sabotaging itself in the name of fairness, 3 Inches of Blood may finally be ready for the great leap forward. Certainly this is their strongest, most varied and all-round listenable record to date, and after several years of flirting with the idea, it may at long last be time to prove themselves as serious contenders.
(Originally written for http://www.rockontheweb.co.uk)