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Last year's Bleed the Line comeback EP was the product of a notably different and disappointing I.N.C. than their 80s incarnation. For some reason, the band had 'grown up' in the worst way, forsaking the frivolous and riffy style of their youths, with slightly ridiculous lyrics, for a straight to the bargain bin amalgamation of 90s groove/thrash metal circa Pantera, Pissing Razors, Machine Head, Exhorder, and perhaps a bit of the more modern Exodus sound (the Rob Dukes fronted albums). The tragedy wasn't so much that the band had mutated upon reformation, but that they chose to more closely mimic an era which in itself was somewhat out of phase. The new material was not necessarily the laziest I've heard, and they anchored it with the solid production values one would expect of its 90s influences, but ultimately the songwriting was an indistinct bummer.
It was highly unlikely that this new direction of old was going to be a random one-off, so at long last the band's third full-length has arrived in Heaven Sent...Hellbound, and it's not a 180 back to the band's finer, formative works, but a direct continuation of the EP's sound. In fact, the whole bloody Bleed the Line track list is regurgitated into the album, so already we are not off to a running start. Of the newer, unheard material, you've got a pretty standard, swaggering tough guy groove/thrash song in "Fist of Fascista", in which the vocals sound almost entirely like a doppelganger of Phil Anselmo, Kyle Thomas or Sacred Reich's Phil Rind, and the bland chugging guitars never develop even a modicum of unique personality. "Swallowed" is total groove metal in the riffing vein of Down or Corrosion of Conformity, while "The Good Bones Stay Down" opens with a slower alternation on one of the "Master of Puppets" guitars; and both "Audio Erotic Asphyxiation" and "It's Coming" feel as if they should be wedged in between Cowboys from Hell and Far Beyond Driven, sans Dimebag's oft admirable ear for riffs.
As for the musicianship, this approach almost never brings out the best of a band. The rhythm guitar patterns sound like the equivalent of random bar or Ozzfest bands throughout the 90s, some nearly sinking to Godsmack levels of disinterest. Once in awhile, they'll attempt a bridge or lead with some personality ("It's Coming" has a good example of this nearing the 4 minute mark), but their guitars just don't seem as inventive as Razorback or The Visitor, which took the blocky power of classics Master of Puppets or Taking Over into a spunky, light hearted territory with some real character. The vocals really piss me off, because Gergely used to have this quirky nasal tone to him that set them apart, where here, he sounds too much like the aforementioned bruisers. Heaven Sent...Hellbound really has only one thing in its favor, and that would be the professional mix of the material: you can hear everything clearly, and the guitars have a nice punch, even when the note selection is not all that exciting.
If the songs were more memorable, then I.N.C. might be forgiven, but unfortunately this just isn't written at the same level as something like Cowboys from Hell, with the crushing muscle and catchy chorus sequences. Today's interest in the thrash genre seems to lie exclusively with 80s authenticity (or 80s clones), or those few technical wizards (Vektor, etc) that continue to develop it along the axis of progression set by prototype acts like Voivod, Mekong Delta, etc, so who knows what will come of this? It's not that this Connecticut troupe were ever really a first class thrash act to begin with, but there was something charming and unique about those first two albums, and it's distressing that they weren't able to wrest out any of that original magic after the 20+ year hiatus. Heaven Sent...Hellbound is a more substantial product than the EP, despite the obvious redundancies, but I definitely wasn't feeling it.