MEMORIAM – Rise to Power (2023)REVIEW

Though it is a moot point among many enduring fans at this point the major conflict of reviving the spirit of Bolt Thrower per any original members was the sense that it arrived against the pretty well stated notion that the band had finished that thought and ducked out before their gig might become contrived, stale, self-parodied or unable to top their perceived peaking in the mid-2000’s. The task that’d followed they who’d dare to try, specifically Birmingham-area quartet Memoriam, was that any material released should ideally meet those old, perhaps unrealistically called-for standards. If you were keeping score beyond their formation in 2015 most would suggest the professional grade gear arrived with their third album a few years later. A different yet still nostalgia-girded legacy seems to have pooled into possibility since. ‘Rise to Power‘ is presented as the second album within a second perceived trilogy, marking some overarching narrative notions in cycle as well as denoting a different drummer most of all, yet we find the band steadfastly pursuing an ideal which continues to aim directly for the Bolt Thrower-loving legion. Cynical as that goal might seem from certain points of view the outcome has been nonetheless solidified with iteration as these folks have done some of their best work to date in recent years and particularly on this latest rustle up.

Giving ’em the horns, eh. — In a nowadays pretty rare bout of incensed spouting I’d gone off on Memoriam‘s early work and carpet bombed anything nearby, sneering loud as I could when reviewing ‘Requiem For Mankind‘ back in 2019. None of that’d amounted to much more than a place to voice my disgust for what’d appeared to be a hostile takeover of the Bolt Thrower legacy, one of the most important entry-level groups that’d made a death metal fan of me in the early 90’s. The big point to make in that review was that the third time had been the charm in terms of Memoriam meeting a worthy professional standard (right, who cares?) and doing a fine enough job of leaning into sounding like the best of Bolt Thrower. As a die-hard fan of that particular style of death metal I’d been satisfied with the nostalgic value of ’em seeing this logical point through, though I’d been hesitant to follow up on ‘To the End‘ (2021) which turned out to be just alright in slickened continuation of that approach. The guitarist and seeming main composer, Scott Fairfax who also plays in the entirely blah revival of Massacre, was getting lean on riff ideas at that point by my measure as they’d continued to streamline their approach by edging into groove metal and hardcorish tropes to fill space. That sound and style finds pure iteration here on ‘Rise to Power‘ with some effective melodic nods redeeming the full listen.

Without the horns of the old guard fandom poking at ’em Memoriam can be viewed as a prolific and (more importantly) consistent strike at a well-loved sound which enjoys plenty of similar success in the hands of bands in this same spirit. One major reason ears perk towards this group today rather than others is of course Karl Willets‘ presence lending some authenticity to their gig. As a vocalist he is a bit of a classic in terms of setting himself in the moment creating and understanding the role of a death metal vocalist’s as a presence and sentient actor, not just a requisite tonal marker. Though his style has been rough on some of Memoriam‘s output in the past Willets‘ grasp of cadence lends quite a bit of forgiveness to the band’s occasionally dry rhythms. The atmosphere we find dipping a toe into “I Am The Enemy” sits on his shoulders to start in particular as a bit of a charismatic on-board even if the only way out of the skittering groove built ends up being a halfway there melodeath walkout. Beyond knowing the role in terms of performance Willets‘ lyrics continue to speak to past and present world events through direct social commentary largely concerned with war and mass death as well as more poetic or indirect approaches to this this war-torn narrative. This continues to be fittingly mournful in line with the increasingly melodic side of the band.

It works man, why change it? — Now approaching a fifth full-length album and having built a large fanbase through support from some large imprints and the enduring Bolt Thrower fandom, Memoriam smartly know that being entirely consistent trumps all when it comes to creating nostalgia-bound ‘old school’ death metal. Now at a high professional standard for their last three albums this approach could rightfully be taken in as a perfectly alright example of inoffensive death metal, music which approximates the style of an old great and revives that feeling for long-standing fandom. I won’t bother you with a one-sided discussion of whether this constitutes art more than it does a popular music “service” to nostalgia but a lot of these concerns are smeared about by the attrition available to an entirely consistent and unbent discography. ‘Rise to Power‘ is difficult to crack away at with complaints in this sense, they’ve certainly improved the inherent emulation of it all and the result sounds just as you’d expect, playing to the (few) easily read musical strengths of early-to-mid 90’s death metal: Physical grooves, inspiring melody, and dynamic rhythmic threads seated within extended speed metal song structures.

For every sluggish, sorta alright guitar riff launched on Side A there is an entertaining harmonized lead melody or much better riff just a minute or less away from developing. In this sense the sequencing of the album matters less than the dynamic of each song. The choice to kick the album off with the just alright jog of shoulda-been Side B fire-up “Never Forget, Never Again (6 Million Dead)” has more substance in its lyrics than it does panache as an album opener. “Total War” notably picks up the real hammer in this regard and acts as the belated push into the fray that ‘Rise to Power‘ needed thanks to its ear grabbing chunk riffs to start and its extended melodic verse riffs which immediately speak to Bolt Thro… Memoriam‘s signature goods. “The Conflict Within” is the only other major redeeming moment on the first half for my own taste, an energized piece which does chug at it with its main riff but for the sake of holding onto the melodic motif which runs through the song in a decidedly classic presentation. If I’d been feeling impatient in preview I’d probably have dropped the record down to the “maybe” pile right there at the halfway point but Side B is incredibly strong here, I’d go as far as suggesting those last four pieces are some of the best Memoriam have managed to date.

If you’ve not caught on yet the lead guitar work on this album essentially sells it a hair beyond being a clean enough study of the Ward/Thomson dynamic on late 90’s/2000’s Bolt Thrower records. The riffs aren’t always quite as clever but the leads are entirely keen on their direction and the feeling they’ve served the piece, as key a presence as Willets‘ interjections by my measure. “Annihilations Dawn” is the big thumbs up on my end in this regard, the “eh, this doesn’t suck at all” moment that had me coming back at a few different angles throughout the listening process. “All is Lost” is the compromise of the final lot, a song that cheeses up with some unfitting pinch harmonics for certain verse riffs but serves the right feeling overall, a trudging momentum found in the simplistic run-on groove of the song. Beyond that point “Rise to Power” gives us the tragic anthem to the usurper before “This Pain” pulls out a grand finale which frankly outshines the rest of the record, excepting maybe “Annihilations Dawn” as the big event and one of the finer compositions we’ve gotten from their ever buzzing mill. If the whole album went this hard with the over the top, dramatic presentation it’d have landed a ton heavier overall for my taste.

As a longtime Bolt Thrower enjoyer who is more than willing to flip a couple of birds at a weak imitation I’d actually felt like Memoriam came pretty close to nailing the right stuff, the old standard freshened into something new, on this fifth album. Sure, they’d hit the right idea on their third album and what they’ve managed since is all respectable in its major goal but this time around the value proposition is at least a bit deeper than approximate nostalgic recall and it seems they’ve got some idea of where to cinch up and go with it. Some notable action to pick through if you’re an old death metal nerd and a big, groovy, melodic tank ride for anyone looking to re-up on a rejiggered classic sound. A moderate recommendation.

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