THRON – Pilgrim (2021)REVIEW

Thou and I are but the blind instruments of some irresistible fatality, that hurries us along, like ships driving before the storm, which are dashed against each other, and so perish.” Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance

The ever-soiled Hermit, the blind and malignant hand of the Shepherd and their inevitable pilgrimage through the incontrovertibly complex narrows of the underworld, to portray the consequences of the offspring of Seth rebelling away from ‘God’. None of this has anything to do with German melodic black/death metal quintet Thron‘s third full-length album ‘Pilgrim‘ as no obviate irreligious revelation or particularly honed narrative comes to guide this slickly performed and well produced record into the shape of a great work. It simply allows the mind to wander as it plays; In fact I could ramble on for pages trying to avoid any declarative statement, thoughtfully run-on word association, or purposeful analysis of the greater experience yet I cannot escape this sunken feeling that whatever time and thought invested will ultimately be reduced to a “for fans of…” statement in the long run. It is a ‘genre entry’ to be sure, a very good one with entirely professional results that offers no substantive prism away from the gloriously established hand of ancient mastery. With that said, for those of us who’d treat classic melodic black/death metal of the Scandinavian variety as one of the great mystery cults to arise from the coldest suburbs in the north of the 90’s it may provide lurid self-reinforcement.

As we’d explored the evolution of melodic black metal from 1991 through 2005 and struck upon the aftermath of records like ‘Storm of the Lights Bane’ in Germany in the late 90’s and early 2000’s it became clear that several threads of this sort of music had arisen in tandem with the much more perforating popularity of Swedish melodic death metal. That isn’t to say that that thread held on for long but that we still find the black flame held alight in most all German states today. I won’t suggest that Thron are any specific spiritual descendent of bands like Black Horizons, Mephistopheles or even (early) Dark Funeral but that this style of music was adopted into the country’s greater history early on and has been expanded upon a great deal in inventive ways. Newer generations of bands like The Spirit and Thron avoid the weirder legacy of the past by seeking to square-up and simplify their casual/on-first-sight appeal by pulling tone and general arrangement from the source and perhaps this is why their records more-or-less approximate what Necrophobic were doing on ‘Bloodhymns‘, Naglfar on ‘Diabolical’, and Sacramentum on the strangely under-appreciated ‘Thy Black Destiny’. All efforts end up landing where many bands had plainly died in the early 2000’s as keyboard-heavy black metal took precedent over second wave black metal rhythm guitar techniques applied to nigh neoclassical heavy metal exploration. So, if I appear passé in attitude towards some aspects of Thron‘s sound it is because I’ve got a shelf or two packed with underappreciated records from an era entirely stuffed with this style of “melodic black/death metal, but we love Mercyful Fate” music. They’ve yet revived that sound and feeling without pushing to succeed it, instead coming across much like the modern incarnation of Necrophobic with a bit of Tribulation‘s evil heavy metal stalking circa ‘Down Below‘. None of is is meant to read as a complaint or compliment, I’ve been an insufferable fan of this style for a few decades now. The major question I’m left to answer is more or less: What do Thron do which stands out?

The heavy metal “riff viking” apologist in me would insist that sophisticated and inherently melodic black/death metal in the style (and high skill level) of the mid-1990’s is brutally hard music to not only compose but to orchestrate since the well-attuned ear that’d listen expects flawlessly achieved non-stop riff attack front to back. Unfortunately the legacy of the music is misunderstood by its most vocal (read: dryly nostalgic) fanbase as melodic black metal and melodic death metal were long ago deemed most important for their passionate emotional affect when the sales of certain records reached into the hundreds of thousands. When we hunt back into Thron‘s discography they’d clearly spent their first 2-3 years as a band working out the mechanical logistics of the artform and that meant their self-titled debut was praised for its style more often than its songwriting and I’d had similar compliments when reviewing their much improved second album (‘Abysmal‘, 2018) where my only major issue was that anything over ~45 minutes is bound to be redundant outside of a very direct concept album. The need to hone in on melodic statements, ride them for their worth and edit away the average stuff still applies to ‘Pilgrim’ yet they’ve certainly improved the density of melodic statements; Enough to keep the full listen engaging, at least. An emphasis on an energetic and triumphant feeling that is exaggerated to the standards of holier than thou heavy metal ultimately serves an exciting sound that always pushes itself to a “ten” with little investment in dynamic movements. Thron are able to subvert this feeling much of the time via their own creative atmospheric touches, ambient breaks, and an emphasis on well-rounded and largely consonant musical phrases but this ultimately nudges the ‘Pilgrim’ experience as equitant to ‘Mark of the Necrogram’ save songs like “Hosanna in the Highest” which is where I’d suggest their Tribulation-esque moments begin to accrue.

Loud and glossy production aside, “The Prophet” and its many declarative statements jogs along with the spirit of 1997 at its heels ’til the break around the ~1:50 minute mark where an interlude takes us into what I’d consider modern metal territory, a subterranean nightclub synth and a trailing bassline that eventually resurfaces. I have to say this moment is unexpected but certainly not for my own taste, this is where I have to concede the touches that make Thron unique and interesting aren’t necessarily why I’d show up to one of their shows but the dramatic arcs of heavily layered and melodious tremolo riffs yet kept me listening. “To Dust” finds a mid-point between the spoken-sung feeling of Century Media-era Tribulation and later Dissection yet this idea became less thrilling during repeat listens where the arrangement of the song very plain despite the high performative value of the guitar work. The aforementioned “Hosanna in the Highest” goes deeper with both references, fully fleshing out both ‘Storm of the Lights Bane’ furor and the rock beats and death rock guitar shimmering in a smartly composed set of transitions. There is an appreciable majesty to this piece and it did end up being the most easily recalled song for its use of subtle guitar hooks. At this point I’d generally say Side A is sharp and well crafted stuff but, uh, predictable and a bit bland. No doubt those’ll be the strongest singles for some listeners but it is the deep cuts on Side B that redeem the experience for my taste.

Thron hit their stride as the 8+ minute dirge of “The Reverence” proceeds to pull in keyboards, chorales, and longer-winded rhythmically complex guitar work. The bigger the production a song is steeped in, the more elaborate the composition, the sooner we see these fellowes thrive within more complex and textural feats. So, perhaps I was wrong back in 2018 in thinking that it’d do the band well to hone in on catchy melodies and songs that go for the jugular, in fact I think a “riff” album that went all out (see: ‘Slaughtersun: Crown of the Triarchy‘) with outsized and extended pieces might be the best way to escape this sort of also-ran Necrophobic feeling I can’t shake when listening to ’em. “The Valley of the Blind” goes in a more melodic death metal direction with its core set of riffs, sure it sounds like a song from ‘Hrimthursum‘ but if this was the second song in the running order I’d have been much more enthusiastic about the direction of ‘Pilgrim’ overall. “Den of Iniquity” utilizes those trailing, spiraling lead guitars to emphasize the ascending waves of choral vocals that highlight it as one of my favorite pieces on the album. Again, if these ideas had shown up earlier on the record and lead with their passionate highs it’d have struck me in a far more effective manner. I could go on about each song from the entire second half of the album beyond “The Reverence”, each of these pieces are excellent, expressive, and perhaps meant to illustrate the depths of a greater concept or narrative that hasn’t been handed to me. Is it all just a matter of the running order? Actually, it kind of is. The best example is perhaps “Into Disarray”, the closer and yet the most memorable song on the album by far thanks to is introductory heavy metal riff and more of those choral vocals and swaying keyboards that add an uniquely ethereal hand to the experience. The second half of ‘Abysmal’ had been boring yet somehow the second half of ‘Pilgrim’ is something major, and easily my favorite material from Thron yet.

So, even if I’d found the first half dry and the second half a revelation beneath old skin that doesn’t mean ‘Pilgrim’ is a plain or average experience. It might’ve been back in 2001 but here in 2021 it is a novel bout of auld mastery and a pretty solid reincarnation with some fresh ideas thrown in there. It makes a sort of bland major label metal statement to start but I’d encourage folks who love melodic black/death metal to give this band a serious go nonetheless, as they’re rightfully inserted in conversations around newer bands like Bane (Serbia), The Spirit and their ilk. Yes, nostalgia is a part of the appeal but for my own taste the killer Side B and the artwork from Khaos Diktator make this a notable record here in the first half of the year. A moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation (75/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Listenable Records
RELEASE DATE:February 19th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Melodic Black/Death Metal

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