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Based on the band name and album title, I was expecting something more extreme. Death metal, metalcore, deathcore, something like that. Of course, were that actually the case, I wouldn't be writing this review. What we get instead is a pretty unusual blend of mildly progressive metal and some oldschool tradition, the latter coming mostly through the vocals. Freddy Ferrell is definitely the main draw to the band for me, as he's got one of those voices that just don't seem to crop up anymore; that gargly, warbly midrange voice in the vein of Vic Hix or John Oliva (minus the shrieks) that is aggressive and manly as hell, yet more skillful than an Udo Dirkschneider or Chris Boltendahl. On Purgatory's Rage Ferrell is given the spotlight, and were a lesser man behind the mic it's possible I wouldn't like the album at all. Ferrell gives 110% all the time, singing like he's trying to pass a couple of kidney stones. Just listen to album closer "Metal Rules" and tell me he's not awesome!
The rest of Brutal Hand's sound is even more unusual, and harder to categorize, though Existence are similar in their general approach. Like Existence, Brutal Hand have a full-time keyboardist who is surprisingly versatile. He employs a wide range of sounds in a wide variety of roles, staying far in the background at times, playing counterpoint with the guitars at others, occasionally even taking the spotlight, often changing sounds and roles multiple times within a single song. While in general I tend to dislike keyboards in metal, at their best Brutal Hand provide a shining example of how the instrument ought to be used. Structurally they're sort of progressive, but there's very little of the sound we have come to associate with prog metal. On top of lacking smooth, virtuosic vocals, there aren't any virtuosic instrumental wanking bits, and there aren't any single-chord, oddly syncopated riffs of the sort that was pioneered by early prog/power bands like Conception. In fact, Brutal Hand don't seem too interested in riffs at all, focusing more on licks riding over larger repeated musical "textures". The textures are basically comprised of repetitive open chord progressions on the guitar with backing keyboards filling them out, and thanks to the vast guitar tone this builds a powerful dark atmosphere, on songs like "Dying Sun" especially. Rather than being the focus of the music as in more riff-based metal, these textures are generally in the background, sitting beneath the main melodies that are provided mainly by Ferrell, with little guitar and keyboard licks thrown in between the vocal lines.
The problem with the "textures" approach, and the reason for the only guardedly positive score I gave Purgatory's Rage, is that it seems to either work well or very poorly. Not much middle ground to speak of. The reason for this is the textures tend to be very repetitive; if Brutal Hand get one right, they're set for the song, but if they fuck one up, they aren't going to be changing it for quite a while and we're stuck with it. If a riff-happy band plays a bad riff, at least it'll be changing pretty soon, but with Brutal Hand that's not the case. Most of the time they pull it off, but on songs like the ill-advised sappy ballad "Sandra", it's pretty bad. The guitar solo at the end partially salvages the song, but for the most part it's a washout. "Blame" on the other hand is basically a typical Brutal Hand song, except it simply doesn't work. It starts out mediocre and, through repetition, becomes nearly unbearable by the end, and actually has me reaching for the skip button faster than the ballad. Luckily, after that mid-album slump they get things back on track with "Earth", and finish strongly with "Metal Rules", an uncharacteristically upbeat metal anthem that Brutal Hand surprisingly pull off with flying colors. During the verses the guitar churns beneath staccato keyboards, which support perhaps Ferrell's most aggressive vocals, building a dense sound that briefly releases its tension through alternating passages of open chords and atmospheric keyboards before returning. Just like my piano teacher always said, if you start strong and end strong, no one will remember the middle, and while the album does have a few weak spots, they're not what sticks.
Purgatory's Rage took some time to grow on me. After hearing samples I initially dismissed Brutal Hand, but for some reason "Metal Rules" kept going around and around in my head like teenagers doing donuts in an empty parking lot, and I eventually caved and bought their latest album. I don't regret a thing! The problem arose because my ears are primed to listen for certain things in heavy metal, and riffs are at the top of the list, as they are almost always essential building blocks in traditional metal songs. The fact that Brutal Hand aren't too concerned with riffs or being repetitive stymied me at first, especially given the fact that their singer would be totally comfortable singing over a typical 80s band. In short, I was judging them by the wrong criteria. Even so I started warming to their sound despite myself, something that initially confused me until I got a feel for what they were trying to do and understood why I was enjoying it. Brutal Hand don't build songs out of riffs in the usual modular way, they think linearly, creating a wide substrate and sprinkling cool shit on top.