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I'm torn on sludge metal. On the one hand, sludge bands generally have a terrific guitar sound and thick production that, when combined well, leads to an experience akin to being buried in, well, sludge. On the other hand, the genre as a whole seems dependent on unbearably slow, long songs. This has lead me to wishing a band would take the sound of Eyehategod, Crowbar, et al, and speed it up. Enter Lair of the Minotaur.
These Chicagoans take a sludge metal base, but instead of relying on long, droning songs that are seemingly dependent on being high to be enjoyable, they speed things up to near thrash speeds on virtually all the songs on here. That's not to say there's no slow, doomy moments - closer "The Hydra Coils Upon This Wicked Mountain", is a slow, lumbering number, that while going on a bit long at seven minutes, is still a decent song thanks to some inventive riffing and a great performance from vocalist Steven Rathbone. His performance throughout this release is very good - mixing a nice Tom Warrior like voice with some shrieking vocals.
The rest of the songs on "The Ultimate Destroyer" are generally up tempo and fairly simple - think Celtic Frost crossed with Eyehategod and you'll get a a general idea of what the band sounds like. Rathbone's guitar tone is absolutely vicious - a thick, meaty sound that is perfect for the music at hand. The production overall is great - the drums are a little buried and the bass might as well be nonexistent, but the guitar sound loud and strong, and the vocals are clear. The actual music sounds incredibly heavy - as mentioned, it sounds like a thrashing version of the New Orleans sludge bands. There's also a definite '80s metal influence on here, most notably Celtic Frost and Bathory.
As for highlights, virtually every song is one. "Juggernaut of Metal" opens things with a blast, being the fastest song on the album, with a great main riff and some well placed slower moments throughout. The rest of the songs on the album basically repeat the same formula, opening with a speedy main riff, then slowing down before repeating the opening riff once more, generally at a higher speed than before. It's a pretty simple formula, but it works. That's not to say all the songs sound the same - the tempos are varied enough, the riffs different enough for each song to stand out on it's own. The standouts for me are "Grisly Hound of the Pit", which features my favorite riff of the album, "Cannibal Massacre" rips by at high speed, feeling much shorter than the five minutes it is, and "Lord of Butchery", which utilizes feedback and noise to make good use of its' sub-minute running time.
What I'm trying to say in all these words, is that this is probably the best metal album of 2006. An unrelenting, vicious classic of sludgy metal that every metalhead worth his salt should hear at least once.