The glittering, catchy, reverb-drunk super-80’s puritanical heavy metal wail of Toronto’s answer to White Wizzard and Enforcer isn’t dead so much as Skull Fist aim for a more honest and raw sound on their third full-length. ‘Way of the Road’ pulls out clean within the same ballpark of retro-glisten previous but, after a four year break they’ve focused on catchy, down-to-earth melodic heavy/speed metal rather than the high fantasy ‘cock-out’ majesty of previous records. It will feel like an entirely savage departure from their old shtick initially but the main difference comes with a more rugged and dynamic recording (read: guitar tone) and stripped down vocal recording that no longer sounds like a Maiden cover band trying to recreate the crap vacuum of ‘Hysteria’. Not only is ‘Way of the Road’ a refinement and a new realm of fidelity for Skull Fist they’re also right on the razor’s edge of the evolving retro heavy metal landscape with their mid-80’s Scorpions-esque sound and shredding speed metal guitar work.
If you’re spitting poutine bits in my general direction and sneering as I’m describing a catchy, melody driven heavy metal record with lots of cocky shredding and mildly introspective lyrics because it doesn’t fit with your expectations of the nigh power metal Skull Fist past, it’d be a reasonable reaction. When I first spun the album I was struck by how accessible the songwriting actually was, and in terms of ‘easy’ listen and tracklist flow Skull Fist‘s latest makes recent releases from Cauldron and Haunt look a touch amateur. With those silky 80’s throwbacks as comparative reference ‘Way of the Road’ represents a different sort of white whale that has eluded me for the last decade thanks to the undying hunger resultant from inexplicably obsessive exposure to Enforcer‘s ‘Diamonds’.
An admittedly unhealthy lifetime spent rubbing a vinyl copy of Scorpion‘s ‘Blackout’ across my chest and groin could begin to explain why I’m up for ‘Way of the Road’ on a more basal level, but ‘Diamonds’ was a modern conduit to deepen said propensity. Whereas Enforcer wrote pop-metal energy within the framework of a juiced olden sound on their second album, Skull Fist write similarly catchy and energy-rich tunes while picking up the pace and cranking into shred whenever the ideas start to feel ‘samey’. Are they pulling off a Schenker/Jabs miracle? Nah, but the ‘raw’ guitar tone and slick lead guitars make for a satisfying Spellcaster-esque heavy metal experience. The magic of a stripped down, or at least simplified, sound is that it ends up reading far heavier than past records which were buried in needless vocal layering and nutless studio reverb.
You get it by now, eh? This is an accessible heavy/speed metal record that bleeds the neon green blood of an era where corporate rock included purist heavy metal and was still a big goddamn deal. It is tough to figure how much sincerity matters when faced with the plethora of insincere (but pretty good) retro heavy metal projects on hand in any given year. For what it is worth, the fighting fit spirit of a band like Skull Fist is inspiring whether or not you’ll find its delivery in earnest and this is no doubt thanks to their taking some extra time to work on the finer details of this record. It doesn’t feel like a slapdash side-gig or a passion project but a more serious stab at heavy music in general. They keep it light and professional and I think that the sort of ‘dangerous grit’ that Skull Fist lacks in this case appears less important when faced with memorable songs.
What will seem like a bold set of changes for expectant listeners will only be briefly polarizing for this Canadian band’s established fandom. Beyond a few cursory listens you’re really getting little more than a standardized modern heavy/speed metal sound that aims to showcase the style of the performances rather than studio trickery; The resulting hook-filled New Wave of 80’s-Assed Heavy Metal style is catchy enough to stand out but maybe not bold enough to impress old heads. I’d actually taken this record on vacation and found myself coming back to it repeatedly throughout the week despite having several comparable releases to choose from. This speaks to the catchiness of the record but also to its flow as a full listen. Anytime I put it on it’d end up being 1-2 full listens, when time allowed, and this is always a sign that the whole album works as an experience rather than in pieces.
It all bled together after a while and I would have liked the band to play around with different sounds and pump up the athletic post-NWOBHM rock side of things. The impression I’m left with is generally positive but nothing about ‘Way of the Road’ attempts to transcend or impress anything but Skull Fist‘s own work. For the band it is a reasonable leap from 2014 to the present day yet the average heavy metal obsessed goon will find this new sound entirely average outside of the deft balance of melodic speed metal ideas and shredding arena metal guitar edge. Because it was impossible to approach this record without considering the ‘breakthrough’ melodic rock moment Cauldron had with ‘New Gods’ in September and the fiery debut from Haunt in August I couldn’t help but place Skull Fist in a sort of middle-ground between those two extremes. As such, a moderately high recommendation is only appropriate in my case because I personally felt it resembled a distant relative of Enforcer‘s earlier discography, otherwise ‘Way of the Road’ is a marked boost in quality for Skull Fist‘s sound and songwriting capability that doesn’t offend or particularly stand out in the crowd.
Words becoming weapons. 3.75/5.0
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