THE GAUNTLET – Dark Steel and Fire (2023)REVIEW

High-siding it into the fires of Hell. — Taking an all-gear, all the time approach to evil heavy metal the dark fantasy engineers of New Jersey-based solo first wave black metal project The Gauntlet wear their classicist influences as vestments of road-borne, and occasionally high speed, havoc. Rather than follow whatever false, dorky kit the black/heavy metal wheel is greasing out these days ‘Dark Steel and Fire‘ finds the artist intently focused on a steeled, road-hardened pocket of interest where their songwriting ideas begin to truly thrive. Despite leaning into a familiar sound which most heavy metal fans will appreciate within moments the results are undeniably inspired, kicking away at substantial, repeatable grooves and an overall memorable debut album with two very distinct sides of their gig explored.

The Gauntlet comes as a solo project from Ace Megiddo who’d first introduced his wares by way of New Jersey cult metal label Nihil Verum Nisi Mors‘ ‘New Jersey Metal Attack Vol. 4 (2019) compilation not long after officially announcing the band. Though the label comes from members of extreme metal bands (Siege Column, Blasphematory, ex-Death Fortress etc.) this project comes as an addition to the pantheon in the spirit of Bathory‘s black/speed metal sound which has been described as black n’ roll for general audiences but “extreme heavy metal” works out best, a black/heavy metal sound playing to the hall rather than the pub. Up front they’d put out a couple of songs that’d made a strong enough impression, the compilation track “Old Lord” which’d ended up on their debut mLP ‘War and Guilt‘ (2020) and “Damnation Calls With Haste” from that same record which gets a slight reworking for ‘Dark Steel and Fire‘ today. These both spoke to the clear inspiration for the band but show a quick progression in terms of writing raw bedroom heavy metal unto the impressive grit-spittin’ biker black metal push we’re getting on this debut.

In as practical terms as possible The Gauntlet play heavy metal which focuses on distinctly early-to-mid 80’s arena heavy metal rhythms matched by groove-oriented traditional rhythm guitar work written for two guitarists, this also includes some classic speed metal influence as first wave black metal typically would in all cases. Don’t go in expecting any semblance of the second wave, nor the hyperactive exaggerations of Motörhead-aping common to revival bands in this style and instead consider the UK82-tinged side of Quorthon‘s work to heavily influence the presence of lead guitars on most songs ‘Dark Steel and Fire‘ touts. If you’re huge on ‘The Return…….‘ and ‘Under the Sign of the Black Mark‘ you’ll quickly pick up on the guitar technique and rhythms available here, though these performances do not reflect or emulate the rigidity of drum machines. Though each of the first three pieces which kick off this album spell this out in equally effective measure I’d felt like “The Signal to Attack” was the most classic example of an early Bathory-like moment taken in serious re-envision. Without belaboring the point, the face value impact of this debut should be clear enough to anyone in the know. More importantly per my own taste, this stuff gets it right and just kinda rules without feeling tired, half-assed or too campy.

Rasped unholy, steady with its locked-in beats, and working with variations upon the same evil heavy metal stomp throughout it’ll be easy to sit with ‘Dark Steel and Fire‘ and experience a sort of tunnel vision unique to underground heavy metal. Hitting upon the aforementioned “Damnation Calls With Haste” mid-album and finding it has a similar ride to a few prior pieces both helps sustain this momentum and personae achieved and likely creates a certain type of dryness for all but the most dedicated who’re eager for this exact style of traditional black/heavy metal. At that point I’d felt this was entirely appropriate for a debut album, to hammer home the intent of The Gauntlet and deliver that first album with absolute stamping menace before easing into the ‘epic’ side of things with the title track as we push into Side B. Naturally the deeper cuts arrive later on with “The Final Guard” b/w “Those Who Will Not Return” being my favorite songs on the album overall for the story they more-or-less tell in pairing and within the saga “Dark Steel and Fire” introduces as the tone of the album shifts. Much as I’d appreciated the speedier grooves of the first half of ‘Dark Steel and Fire‘ I’d wanted more of this mid-paced ‘epic’ heavy metal soldiering found on the second half and felt like either piece could’ve gone on for another five minutes.

As a huge fan of The Gauntlet‘s inspiration (which of course also includes slight nods to early Celtic Frost, Venom and such) I was on board from the first few nods of “Where Heroes Go to Die” but I’d appreciated that after 4-5 songs they’d still had somewhere to go with their sound. Beyond that I’d definitely felt like the full listening experience and production values improved beyond ‘War and Guilt‘ while continuing the thread of songcraft enough that it didn’t feel like a redundant expansion. Above all else it is a solid heavy metal record that introduces just enough variety to keep it swingin’ but focuses most intently on delivering violent, often catchy and spirited songs. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (79/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
ARTIST:THE GAUNTLET
TITLE:Dark Steel and Fire
LABEL(S):Eternal Death
RELEASE DATE:January 13th, 2023

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