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A somewhat darker, more contemporary Heathen - 87%

Agonymph, October 12th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2020, CD, Nuclear Blast

Heathen has always been one of my top three thrash metal bands. Their compositions are generally more clever than those of their peers without veering too far into prog territory, they aren’t afraid to use classic heavy metal melodies and as far as thrash metal singers go, David White is far above average. They just aren’t the most prolific band in the world. Part of that are the extracurricular activities. Guitarists Lee Altus and Kragen Lum have spent a lot of time touring with Exodus in recent years. Fortunately, ‘Empire Of The Blind’ proves why Heathen still deserves to exist in a big way.

One of the most prominent differences between ‘Empire Of The Blind’ and Heathen’s excellent 2010 comeback ‘The Evolution Of Chaos’ is the fact that Kragen Lum wrote all the songs this time around. It would be tempting to say that the music sounds like Prototype with David White singing and while that is not entirely untrue, as this is easily a darker, more modern version of Heathen, Lum clearly made a distinction between the two bands. ‘Empire Of The Blind’ is not quite as proggy as Prototype, while it was clearly important to Lum to put the guitar melodies front and center.

If there is one area in which Heathen improved greatly on ‘Empire Of The Blind’, it would be the mid-tempo material. While Heathen has yet to release a truly disappointing song, their uptempo material always appealed to me more. Some of the better moments on this albums are relatively subdued in tempo, such as the brooding majesty of the title track and the pulsating, almost Nevermore-ish aggression of ‘Devour’. ‘Shrine Of Apathy’ is one of the more unique tracks in Heathen’s discography, being a dark, almost doomy semi-ballad. Not quite as good as ‘Red Tears Of Disgrace’, but definitely characteristic.

Those craving something more uptempo will still get their fill with ‘Empire Of The Blind’ though. ‘Blood To Be Let’ is nice and furious, while ‘The Blight’ is an excellent choice for an opener, as it is energetic and closest to the ‘The Evolution Of Chaos’ in overall sound. At the other end of the album, ‘The Gods Divide’ is a ripping thrasher that can rival any modern Exodus track with a fantastic chorus and two incredible guitar solos to boot. Speaking of which, the instrumental ‘A Fine Red Mist’ deserves a special mention. Aside from Altus and Lum, there are three guest guitarists. The razor sharp aggression of Gary Holt, the looser runs of Rick Hunolt, Altus’ semi-neoclassical leads, Doug Piercy’s unconventional creativity and Lum’s melodic virtuosity are all instantly recognizable.

‘Empire Of The Blind’ came out slightly different than I expected, but somehow still is a typical Heathen album. The record is full of clever, unpredictable thrash metal songwriting, which is rare enough these days, and fantastic performances by all musicians involved. There is also a somewhat more contemporary edge to it than the decidedly old school ‘The Evolution Of Chaos’. It is less overtly melodic, but not without forsaking the melodies. Ten years is a long wait, but Heathen does not disappoint here. All I can do is hope they have at least one more great album in them.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Blight’, ‘The Gods Divide’, ‘Empire Of the Blind’, ‘Devour’

Originally written for my Kevy Metal weblog

Empire of Ass-Kicking Hooks - 93%

Thrasymachus92, October 6th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2020, CD, Nuclear Blast

I can still remember the day, more than 10 years ago, when Heathen released their comeback album, The Evolution of Chaos, and how I felt simultaneously excited and apprehensive about the whole thing. Though I’m not old enough to have lived through its heyday in the 80s, I’ve always loved thrash. As a teenager, I went through a period of what I can only describe as obsessive hunting for metal — discovering literally hundreds of bands, both well-known and obscure — and thrash bands tended to consistently dominate the results of that hunt.

It was a wonderful voyage of discovery, but I learned something unfortunate along the way: the older bands from the 80s, who did such incredible, ass-kicking work while in their prime, were almost never able to sustain that level of quality as the years wore on. Something about high-level creative ability tends to decline with age, especially for musicians — whether that’s because they become complacent with their past successes and lose the drive to keep pushing the envelope, or just because they become old and tired. And so, when I learned that Heathen, one of the Bay Area’s best, had come out with an album for the first time in 21 years, I crossed my fingers and bought it. I loved Victims of Deception and its fantastic melodicism, but 21 years is a long time. Had Heathen lost their mojo like so many others had done? Would this album end up being bad — or worse, just mediocre? Before putting on The Evolution of Chaos for the very first time, I recall passionately hoping that it wouldn’t suck.

Holy hell, were my expectations exceeded! The Evolution of Chaos was an extraordinary piece of work, and I quickly came around to the opinion that it was even better than Heathen’s older stuff. But now, another 10 years have passed since Heathen have released an album. Another decade has worn on the band. And with the bar having been set as high as it has been, I have to again ask myself the same questions that I did 10 years ago: Do they still got it? Has Heathen been able to resist the ravages of age and time and keep the fire burning? Can they still make music that holds up against what they did decades ago?

It gives me great pleasure to say that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “Hell yes!” Empire of the Blind is fucking awesome.

The first thing that jumps out about this album is how much shorter its songs are than those of its predecessor. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it’s just that it’s unusual for a band known for extended epics like “Heathen’s Song” and “No Stone Unturned” to release an album in which every song clocks in at under six minutes long. By Heathen’s standards, this is something of an experiment, and it unquestionably works.

The general guitar tone is strongly redolent of Exodus’ Tempo of the Damned — gritty, grimy, gravelly and dark. It sounds like battery acid tastes, and it leaves the same sort of electric impression upon the ear. This abrasiveness, however, is tastefully balanced by two things: David White’s vocals and chief axeman Lee Altus’ characteristically melodic noodling.

White’s voice hasn’t aged a day in the last 10 years. He proves himself able, at alternating moments, to summon up a rough baritone vocal fry that meshes nicely with the aforementioned hard guitar tone, and also to push his voice into more cleanly and soaringly melodic registers that create just the appropriate contrast to that very same hardness.

Anyone who’s listened to Heathen before will instantly recognize Altus’ utterly unique style of soloing. The leads are melodic, but with an intangible sort of “epic” quality to them. At many moments, especially in songs like “The Blight,” “The Gods Divide,” “A Fine Red Mist” and “Dead and Gone,” this is used marvelously to create crescendos that get the blood racing. The solos just have a certain je ne sais quoi aspect to them: when you hear them, you immediately know that you’re listening to a Heathen song, and that’s really all that can be said about them — other than that they simply kick ass.

I should pause to acknowledge something: a sticker on the album describes it as “[u]napologetic, hook-laden thrash metal!” It most certainly is! Added emphasis should really be placed here on the “hook-laden” bit, because there truly isn’t a single song on Empire of the Blind — other than the instrumental tracks, of course — that isn’t prominently studded with a memorable hook that appears precision-engineered to make you rush back to hear it again. The driving force behind this is, undoubtedly, David White’s superb vocal performance and what he does in either the chorus or the pre-chorus of song after song. From the very first time I put this album on, I sat there, lyric booklet in my hand, singing along to the choruses of songs like “The Blight,” “Empire of the Blind,” “Sun in My Hand,” and ”Blood to Be Let,”. You will be tempted to do the same.

So the final question to ask, then, is: Is this this as good as, or better than, The Evolution of Chaos? Alas, no. For my money, The Evolution of Chaos combines raw speed and ferocity with Heathen’s trademark melodicism in a truly remarkable way. And while many of the songs on that album were long, none of them were needlessly so. It therefore edges this album out — but only just barely. Empire of the Blind is still an excellent album, and if Heathen had released it 10 years ago instead of The Evolution of Chaos, I would have loved it without reservation. It’s certainly one of the best metal albums of 2020, and may even go down as one of the best metal offerings of this decade.

No question about it: Heathen’s still got it.

Highlights: As someone with an abiding love of thrash, I’m naturally going to be partial to the wildest and thrashiest songs on this album, those being “The Blight,” “Empire of the Blind,” “Blood to Be Let,” the instrumental “A Fine Red Mist” and especially the incredible “The Gods Divide.” This last song is, to my mind, in a dead heat with the title track for the honor of being the best song on the album. The insert of televangelist preaching into “Devour” is a nice little nostalgic wink at those who loved “Hypnotized.” “Sun in My Hand” is a mid-paced song, but the chorus is so damn catchy that it needs to be listened to.

Weak Points: “Shrine of Apathy” isn’t a bad song by any means. It’s a slow and melancholy ballad that recalls the beautiful things that Heathen can do with clean guitars. Still, compared to the other songs here, it’s a tad weak.

A twist on the past - 65%

TheNotrap, September 29th, 2020

The Bay Area thrash scene was one of the most exciting heavy metal subcultures to emerge in the eighties. Influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and genre pioneers like Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, or Exodus, several bands from the San Francisco Bay Area burst forth to further deepen the revolutionary style that had flourished a couple of years ago. It somehow acted as a counter-current to Los Angeles' glam trend that was going full speed at the time. In contrast to its fellow LA countrymen, this movement had a much more radical attitude, linked to bands like Judas Priest or Iron Maiden, in detriment of the hair metal approach of bands such as Ratt, Cinderella, or Mötley Crüe. Although not among my favorite Bay Area thrash acts at the time, Heathen was well regarded by the metal community, being in the same pot as bands like Vio-lence or Forbidden. Their debut album, Breaking the Silence, filled the gap between thrash and power metal, with influences from European bands like Helloween, who had just released the iconic Walls of Jericho two years earlier. Like most post-88 thrash releases, the band's sound evolved into a more technical and intricate signature on their sophomore album Victims of Deception, at a time when the genre was already losing ground to death metal and other emerging genres like groove metal, nu-metal or grunge. Although the album enjoyed considerable recognition, the band broke up a year later due to a series of disruptive events, including the death of bassist Randy Laire. Following a nearly ten-year hibernation and several line-up changes, the band would return in full force with The Evolution of Chaos, cementing the more technical approach of its predecessor. Yet again the band went into pause mode, much due to the fact of Lee Altus becoming Exodus resident guitarist since 2005. Therefore, with only three albums under their belt and countless line-up changes, Heathen isn’t exactly a success story in terms of stability and reliability, thus generating quite a bit of buzz and curiosity around their long-awaited comeback in 2020.

The Metallica-esque intro 'The Rotting Sphere' instantly takes us back to 1986, leading us to believe that Empire of the Blind would be a return to the band's roots. This feeling would be extended through the following speed metal-ish 'The Blight', one of the album's best songs thanks to its rather catchy, melodic approach. However, I couldn't help noticing that the guitar tone reminded me of Exodus, which although not entirely surprising due to Lee Altus' affiliation, didn't thrill me as much as the songwriting. Although I enjoy Exodus' saturated, powerful tone, I don't think it fits Heathen's more melodic style so well. This closeness to the thrash pioneers is evident not only in the guitar sound but also in songs like 'Dead And Gone' or 'Blood To Be Let', with the latter featuring a Fabulous Disaster-esque kick-off, leading to a mid-paced Anthrax-ish tempo. Therefore, the return to the band's beginnings proved to be a false expectation as we delved deeper into the album. Empire of the Blind has at its core a rather mainstream thrash approach, orbiting around mid-paced tempos, catchy choruses, and somewhat generic and accessible songwriting. This more mainstream focus is mirrored in songs like the title track or 'Sun In My Hand', which features one of the album's most captivating choruses. These songs, although enjoyable, have a certain ephemeral flavor, showing some predictability and a certain degree of institutionalization in the band's current signature. I have no objections to bands that add new flavors to their formula, even if they are more mainstream, yet I can't help but notice that songs such as 'In Black' or 'Devour' seem too conventional for the band's standards. Despite its somewhat generic package, the band's DNA reappears at the end, either in the instrumental 'A Fine Red Mist' or in 'The Gods Divide', which proudly mirrors Heathen's Bay Area roots. I believe Empire of the Blind would benefit from more songs like these or 'The Blight'. At this late stage of their career, I don't think the lads will be able to broaden their audience through a more mainstream approach, on the contrary, I think the focus should have been the existing fanbase, which orbits bands like Testament, more interested in intense thrash approaches with a solid technical background. Zeuss's sound engineering, although competent, could also have enhanced the band's identity in another way, exploring more suitable tones, particularly on guitars. I do enjoy Andy Sneap-esque productions, and I certainly understand he wanted to boost the mid-paced riffing, however, there is a saturation value that doesn't quite match the band's personality.

After a second long hibernation, Heathen returns with an album that not only differs from their previous works but also shuffles the band's DNA. With its more mainstream thrash approach, Empire of the Blind mirrors a band within a more conventional comfort zone, unwilling to take risks or venture into more intricate territories. That being said, this more generic angle still delivers some highlights that should be valued accordingly, because, at the end of the day, Lee Altus & Co will always deserve our attention and respect.

Originally written for www.sputnikmusic.com

Great guitar play but uninspired songwriting - 65%

kluseba, September 20th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2020, CD, Nuclear Blast

I understand that the times when thrash metal veterans have released two albums within a few months are over but ten and a half years between two records is still a stretch. What matters though is the final result but Heathen's fourth studio album is only good at best and mostly average.

There are a few positive things to point out about Empire of the Blind. The guitar play by Lee Altus and Kragen Lum is excellent. The band can especially convince in the calmer instrumental parts that value melody over speed. The three instrumental tracks aren't fillers but very decent in that regard. I also like the fact how the album closer goes back to the opener, making the entire record sound whole, fluid and coherent.

As you might have guessed, this record also has its flaws. The production sounds rather sterile, flat and cold. I would have expected some more edges and energy coming from a thrash metal album. The few groove metal riffs in the middle section of the album were unnecessary. That's still one of the least imaginative metal genres. The songwriting sounds rather uninspired. While there is no stinker on the album, there isn't one single truly outstanding tune on the entire album. The tracks rush by without leaving a deeper impression.

If I had to recommend songs to check out the album I would probably go for the consistent, energetic and focused ''Blood to Be Let''. The dreamy, haunting and melodic ''Shrine of Apathy'' is also great for what it is even though thrash metal purists might disagree. Otherwise, stick to the playful instrumental tune ''A Fine Red Mist'' which is ironically the second longest track on the album.

In the end, Heathen delivers too little too late on Empire of the Blind. The album isn't a disaster and essentially saved by the excellent guitar play. However, it doesn't leave a deeper impression and is overall good at best and mostly just average. Thrash metal fans can skip that one. Empire of the Blind might only be interesting for avid collectors and fans of the band.

Blinding thrash triumphs with an imperial sense of melody. - 92%

hells_unicorn, September 18th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2020, CD, Nuclear Blast

The revival of old school thrash metal that kicked off soon after the turn of the millennium has presented a fair share of blessings and curses, the most frequently cited in the later camp being that the younger crowd has been a bit too slavish to the past. Regardless of how prevalent this flaw may or may not be, one of the greatest benefits of this retro craze has been the resurgence of a number of classic bands that were afforded limited time to reshape the scene due to changing trends. Particularly in the case of the San Francisco Bay Area, a number of bands such as Forbidden and Laaz Rockit were expanding the very definition of the style with such riveting offerings as Annihilation Principle and Twisted Into Form, all the while still maintaining a needed level of melodic accessibility, thus cutting a bit against the more extreme character of bands appropriating more of a German, quasi-death/thrash sound as well as the slower, groovy sound that would eventually supplant the old guard.

This is the historical context in which a similarly styled technical thrash metal band in Heathen came into its own, appropriating the complexity and heaviness of late 80s Metallica and the aforementioned younger bands out of San Francisco. However, this was accomplished in a manner that was a tad more accessible due to vocalist David White having more of a conventional metallic power to his approach and plenty of melodic hooks being woven into their songwriting. The resulting 1991 sophomore smash of an LP Victims Of Deception could have been best described as the album …And Justice For All should have been had it been mixed properly and been less repetitive, and while this Bay Area staple would fold tent a couple years later due to the culture dominance of grunge, the same second studio outing would continue to define their unique stylistic niche upon their reformation in the early 2000s onward.

Though proving to be among the least prolific Bay Area veterans to make a comeback in the past 20 years, Heathen has definitely compensated by refining their product into something truly formidable. Their 2010 return to the studio The Evolution Of Chaos generally mirrored the epic scope and character of Victims Of Deception, clocking in at well over an hour and simultaneously adopting a more modernized production approach in line with concurrent efforts out of Death Angel and Exodus. In contrast, their newest album Empire Of The Blind opts for a more concise approach, all the while still maintaining the dark and heavy aesthetic of their early 90s meets present day sound and the mixture of infectious hooks and flashy guitar gymnastics that set this band apart from the pack. It’s generally a team effort that features a strong new rhythm section in drummer Jim DeMaria of Toxik and Riphouse fame, and Psychosis bassist Jason Mirza; but it’s the returning guitarist duo of Kragen Lum and founder Lee Altus that truly drives this thrashing machine.

Unfolding in a storybook fashion, this sonic explosion of tuneful rage opens and closes with a part of brief, haunting instrumentals in “This Rotting Sphere” and “Monument To Ruin” that remind a fair bit of the atmospheric introductory material utilized so heavily on Testament’s The New Order. However, once things get rolling the picture becomes far more complex and agitated than what a mainline thrash band would dream up either in 1988 or today, with blazing platters of thrashing fury like “The Blight”, “Blood To Be Let” and “Devour” being among the busiest riff monsters yet also the more concise offerings. On the other hand, equally nasty crushers like “A Fine Red Mist” and “In Black” up the intensity factor further and feature some of the flashiest lead guitar gymnastics heard to date, with the former starting off with a flurry of shredding brilliance right out of the Malmsteen playbook. Naturally there are some more restrained moments such as the melancholy ballad “Shrine Of Apathy” and the mid-paced melodic stomp of “Sun In My Hand” that shine quite brightly, but ultimately its speedy anthems like “The Gods Divine” that carry the day here.

This is an album that no self-respecting thrash metal fan should go without hearing, and most will want to spend the coming weeks playing it to death given the brilliant balance of impact-based aggression and smooth melodic swagger. Those who found The Evolution Of Chaos to be one of the highlights of the previous decade will find the same basic story here, though minus the drawn out, 7 to 11 minute long epic songs that saw Heathen recapturing their affinity for Metallica’s late 80s material. Likewise, those who have generally taken to the modernized incarnation of the overall Bay Area sound that has been ongoing since the release of Exodus’ Tempo Of The Damned will find a winner here, though it has a tad bit more of the older early 90s sound mixed in than much of what defined first generation thrash in the 2000s. In essence, this is thrash metal’s thrash album, adorned with enough catchy moments to rope in occasional consumers of the art, but true to form enough to keep the hardliners in tow. Thrash until death, then reincarnate and repeat.

Originally written for Sonic Perspectives (www.sonicperspectives.com)