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Far more original than most former tribute bands - 84%

Agonymph, November 29th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2020, CD, Steamhammer (Digipak)

Is it possible for a band to be better than the one they model themselves after? Them seems to prove it is. Starting life as a King Diamond tribute band, Them eventually started writing their own material that in my opinion surpasses anything the horror metal master ever released. It helps that Them is not blindly copying King Diamond. Just listen to their brand new ‘Return To Hemmersmoor’ and the thrash and speed metal influences of guitarists Markus Ullrich and Markus Johansson are immediately obvious, though not without the drama that conceptual works like this require. This is simply excellent heavy metal.

After listening to ‘Return To Hemmersmoor’ a couple of times, it finally dawned on me why I prefer Them over their main influence. Everything on King Diamond’s albums is in service of the narrative. This includes his vocals, which are a great atmospheric tool, but don’t offer a lot in terms of memorable melodies. For example, a melodic anthem like ‘Free’ would probably not have made the cut on one of his albums, but stands out here. Them’s Troy Norr is far more capable of carrying a strong melody. Am I saying he is a better singer? Not necessarily, but yes, he is.

Them’s main appeal to me was always their guitar work and that is no different on ‘Return To Hemmersmoor’. There aren’t many bands with an actual keyboard player in their ranks this guitar-oriented, but that hardly is a complaint. Most of the riffs on ‘Battle Blood’ would not have sounded out of place on any of Exodus’ recent albums, which makes it one of the highlights of the record. ‘Age Of Ascension’ has got some vicious, yet creative riff work going on as well, providing an energetic start of ‘Return To Hemmersmoor’. Plenty of excellent dramatic guitar harmonies are all over the album as well; ‘Hellhounds: The Harbingers Of Death’ had me sold within a second in that regard.

Most albums like ‘Return To Hemmersmoor’ are designed to be listened to in one sitting, but I always feel like concept albums like Them's are truly great when their songs are impressive even without the context of the album. This is certainly the case with ‘Return To Hemmersmoor’. Apart from the theatrical interludes, obviously, none of the songs need their conceptual surroundings to be good. Even the more dramatic tracks, such as the excellently dynamic ‘Waken’, are simply excellent songs.

‘Return To Hemmersmoor’ did not have the immediate impact on me that ‘Manor Of The Se7en Gables’ did, but it is an equally powerful record full of dynamic heavy metal that apart from its production could easily have been from the late eighties. I’m not a fan of the plasticky snare drum sound and I have never enjoyed voice acting in music, but I tend to pay too much attention to the excellent guitar work and Norr’s melodies to let that ruin my listening experience. With ‘Return To Hemmersmoor’, Them once again proves that the step from tribute band to original material doesn’t necessarily result in lesser music.

Recommended tracks: ‘Battle Blood’, ‘Age Of Ascension’, ‘Free’

Originally written for my Kevy Metal weblog

The riffs belong to them. - 86%

hells_unicorn, November 20th, 2020

It is said that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but some of the growing crop of recently formed heavy metal acts paying homage to the mighty King Diamond in both his solo work and with Mercyful Fate are treading upon fairly unique territory in relation to the originals. Perhaps the most unique of these outfits to pay homage to the king is the American and Teutonic alliance dubbed Them, taking their name from the famed 3rd solo album of King Diamond and featuring a continuous storybook conceptual framework that bears some resemblance to the aforementioned album and its 1989 sequel Conspiracy. Originally conceived as a tribute band in 2008 by New York thrash metal outfit Coldsteel front man Troy Norr, the band originally folded in 2011 so that said 80s thrash outfit could have a go at riding the thrash revival wave in the early 2010s, but would reform as a wholly original and highly theatrical successor to the King Diamond legacy, beginning an impressive studio output that has now culminated in a veritable audio book trilogy.

Though employing a full time keyboardist and showcasing a lead vocalist with a makeup job that’s arguably twice as elaborate as King Diamond’s recent getup, this outfit is one that is notably heavier and more riff-centric than its object of emulation, to the point of morphing into a quasi-thrash metal sound. Much of this likely owes to Norr’s own history with the New York thrash scene, though one would be remiss to discount Symphony X’s own Mike LePond’s past association with the project in shaping things into a heavier overall template, let alone current drummer Angel Cotte’s ongoing stint with Demolition Hammer. The battery of the rhythm section provided by Cotte and current bassist Alexander Palma is notably formidable, though the usually dense atmosphere of harmonized vocals and keyboard accompaniment is adorned with a truly wicked guitar display out of the duo of Markus Ullrich and Markus Johansson that thuds with the modernized body of Jeff Loomis and Michael Romeo, while the lead guitar display is a bit more comparable to said players than that of Andy LaRocque.

As the third and final installment of this horror-based conceptual excursion, 2020’s Return To Hemmersmoor brings things to an end on a decidedly intense note. Following a vividly performed cinematic prelude “Diluvium”, featuring dialogue between the protagonist and his trusty, Igor-like associate on their scheme to employ a dark ritual to resurrect the former’s deceased wife and daughter (after thwarting a witch trial no less), this heavy thrashing beast lets off a mighty metallic roar before ushering the first full length song. The compact crusher “Age Of Ascension” blurs the lines between Mercyful Fate’s olden speed metal flair with a more percussive, modern thrashing assault that finds vocalist Troy Norr channeling multiple personas, often employing the signature King Diamond falsetto sparingly and as more of a gang chorus device while largely sticking to a more rugged and traditional tenor-ranged roar. The similarly shorter and swifter anthems “The Tumultuous Voyage To Hemmersmoor” and “Hellhounds: The Harbingers Of Death” showcase occasional power metal flourishes when the guitars take over the reins completely.

While this album definitely excels at bringing the auditory mayhem at a quick pace, the more involved compositional devices at work in the longer and more nuanced offerings on here is even more enthralling. The fist-pumping, mid-paced and highly infectious anthem “Free” has arguably the most memorable chorus hook of anything occurring on here, and is respectable elaborate and effectively showcases the band’s thrash affinities within a more melodic context. The mystical eastern flourishes of “Field Of Immortality” sees the auditory setting being painted with a truly vivid brush, to the point of almost crossing into the power/progressive territory of Symphony X. Likewise, the shred-happy guitar devices that weave in and out of the dark thrashing madness of “Waken” often veers into progressive territory, particularly when taking things into slower and more groovy territory. But things are usually at their best during the closing moments of a storybook album, and “Maestro’s Last Stand” as an unsettling ending to a twisted tale is ushered in by an intense thrashing extravaganza with heavy operatic elements.

This has all of the elements that a person looking for a unique twist on the music of the past can hope for, as it effectively blends the popular dark thrashing sound often heard out of the recent metalcore and progressive outfits in America with the notably northern European theatricality that many bands east of the Atlantic such as Portrait and the now defunct In Solitude imported directly from Mercyful Fate. It arguably provides a rare bridge between the still ongoing thrash and traditional heavy metal revivals that continue to see new bands paying tribute to the greats of the 1980s while not really sounding like a full on throwback to where metal was 35 years ago. At this juncture it is unclear whether this album will simply mark the end of this band’s first epic tale or if it will prove to be the culmination of the entire project, but most with an ear to the old ways should hope for the former as this is a solid, involved fit of metallic storytelling that will refuse to get old, even after multiple back to back listens.

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