The major fallout that comes with any form of gentrification is not only a defeat of the established culture inherent to that point of origin but, the creation of a new sub-class of displaced peoples who’re often given no choice but to eject from their haunts or to erase the most established parts of themselves. Forced progress builds resentment in previously secularized civilizations and more often than not a multi-generational enemy is made of any human being forced from home (or established comfort) to the new and least habitable edges of civilization. There exists a long-standing resistance to the ruthlessness of ‘progress’ that each next generation of fringe-shoved metalhead brings as the inevitable head of sonic accessibility and metal culture appropriation becomes uglier in the eyes and ears of the aged who’ve been made blunt pillars, human shields against the awkward frailty of outsiders looking to redefine heavy metal for the sake of their own comfort. The music itself can appear absurd in this sense as a counter-cultural tradition redefined only in small and stable increments over decade-spanning bodies of work. That obtuse, ever-resilient spirit is a thick and calloused skin shared amongst a people who truly know their history and cherish it. There’ll be no shoving metal forwards or back, and there’ll be no telling any metalhead what to do unless they’re a goddamn follower worm and this is where a band like Italian trio Barbarian take their own stand in kicking off this their fourth full-length, ‘To No God Shall I Kneel’. More than a misotheistic battering ram, but an ever-flapping banner to heavy (and early extreme) metal flies as a truly idealized 40 minute punch of blackened speed n’ stomp classicism in the hands of Barbarian.
Subtle as this now decade old Florence, Italy extreme speed metal band never were, their early German speed metal influences had been slightly guarded beneath an obvious love for Hellhammer, Venom and the very earliest personality-heavy Celtic Frost releases. Not only have the early Running Wild influences (‘Gates to Purgatory’, ‘Branded and Exiled’) begun to shine through stronger with each release, now we’re treated to some genuine ‘Under Jolly Roger’-isms beyond those hints of fun on ‘Cult of the Empty Grave’ (2016). These sorts of theatrics are what you’d expect from early Rage (well, Avenger) and their ilk, escalating the “Metal, or fuck you!” spirit and fully bulking up the jogging true metal feeling of the experience. Sure, you could have guessed those general stylistic influences from a mile away if you’d heard any Barbarian album and the main point to be made here is that they’ve done an incredible job of making sure the songwriting and fidelity of the recording matches (or exceeds) the glory of those old-but-still-remembered mid-80’s power metal albums that often had a load of ballsy grit to swing around. Musician Borys ‘Crossburner’ Catelani is that proverbial pair of swinging metal balls between his consistently sharpening guitar compositions and deeper first wave black metal vocal grit. Obtuse, belligerent, gritty in attitude and with a flaming metal spirit achieving a new peak of theatrical value, it comes as a bit of surprise how professional and well-rounded the production of ‘To No God Shall I Kneel’ is, even outshining the already slick previous album.
My introduction to Barbarian was ‘Faith Extinguisher’ (2014) as I was drawn in by the blasphemic spirit and the promise of classic heavy metal influences applied to a blackened speed metal sound. Though I wasn’t impressed by the songwriting there was a sort of Bulldozer and/or Törr level of campy evil rawness that sat well next to the Midnight album that’d come out that same year. From there a clear leap in fidelity, and some better focus on melodic ideas (and guitar work) was made in 2016; Today ‘To No God Shall I Kneel’ feels like a huge improvement beyond that somewhat clunky first introduction but also several steps forward in terms of providing the absolutely ideal boost of overall quality for the now world class skills Barbarian have worked up. The differences aren’t incredibly pronounced and it’ll all feel very similar to the prior record in many respects with another seven anthemic blackened heavy metal songs mocking Christianity, followers, and the untrue hordes while championing the lineage they’d tribute with traditions of sound and style. Why am I getting such a kick out of it? Knowing a lot of the lesser known projects Crossburner has lead (Disarm, Kadath) along with a true metalpunk mindset amplifying more recent Children of Technology records helps but, it was his label’s (Agipunk) remaster of Slaughter demos years ago that caught my attention and I’d been waiting in the rafters for a truly great release from Barbarian since I’d made the connection. Beyond that it has a fantastic fuckin’ neck punch of a bass guitar tone, a Manowar sized metal spirit, and the gnashing goat’s blood-spitting spirit of classic Bathory in vein; But it is the metalpunk rhythmic slap of ‘To No God Shall I Kneel’ that vaults their classic metal sound up high into a real tank of a heavy metal record.
Is there a more outright catchy heavy metal record out this year? Probably, but it’ll fall out of your head when you see that band has zero stage presence at Keep it True and a dainty wiffle ball guitar tone compared to what Barbarian are slugging around. Much as I dig “Obtuse Metal” as a hard-flexing opener you don’t get a real sense of what you’re in for until you’re about two minutes into “Birth and Death of Rish’ah” with its fantastic set of melodic leads, Motör-bass licks, and steady kickin’ double-bass plow. Every part of Barbarian‘s modus up to that point is in that song from the Running Wild chorale to punkish Hellhammer‘d riff transitions. From that point on the record chuck out the template while building upon this newly bombastic production sound with the Venom-cum-Exploited “Hope Annihilator” to the unforgettable blackened speed metal jaunt of “The Beast is Unleashed”. Its all killer front to back, there is no stupid-assed pointless tracks here (relatively speaking!) even the simpler “Sheep Shall Obey” has its place in the middle of the album in keeping the pace high, and the message on point. The only truly unexpected and transcendent moment comes with the title track, a 7+ minute where we get a full-on metal warrior ballad with clean vocals and group-sung verses. Barbarian definitely stretched their necks all the way into pure heavy metal before, and throughout this album but that final track goes a long way towards nailing their point to the cross.
Maybe it is the German 80’s metal influences, the punk as fuck energy, the heavy nods to first wave black metal heroes, or just the infinite defiance of religion but there isn’t a damned second of ‘To No God Shall I Kneel’ that isn’t infinitely repeatable. Well, I think I was about halfway into the thirtieth or so spin before I needed to move on but it can happily sit in my collection and as next level of quality in their discography. This is a fast-growing and slow-burning affair for my taste where it’d gone from a moderately high recommendation to a high recommendation around the fifth full listen. I believe it has some powerful songwriting and serves as their best mix of influences thus far. Highly recommended. For preview I’d suggest “Birth and Death of Rish’ah” had its claws in me immediately and the middle of “The Beast is Unleashed” will have you swinging your fist around in the air with an imaginary axe in hand.
Hear the steps, death draws near. 4.0/5.0
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