As heavy music niche-craft becomes more of a studied science than an instinctive art year over year projects aiming for narrowly pre-determined parameters become generally expected as we find readable sub-genre traits prioritized and developed long before songcraft in most cases. With a prescribed goal in mind people often become actors, less important than the zeitgeist their entity collectively steps behind for the sake of readable intent in the form of a product. The righteously flawed human touch is unflinchingly sapped in the process. There is still some power in this stance as charisma becomes the only meaningful currency to the artist in an age of borrowed riffs and bled-dry archetypes. The result is more often than not fundamentally entertaining, just as artificial intelligence might occasionally make glorious shape and sense of old data, yet there is something to be said for the groups who push beyond these norms and begin to value their idiosyncrasies over dryly self-aware and iterative sentience. Helsinki and Toronto-based traditional heavy metal quintet Smoulder manifest as a band fully aware of their still underground sensibilities, quirks and odd successes as this key sophomore full-length album finds fortitude in the traditional while reaching for their own uniquely voiced outlier status. Still too smart for their own good and still not getting it quite right in terms of their performances the band’ve banked on charismatic delivery as they lend energy, verbosity and perfectly roughened edges to their cause on ‘Violent Creed of Vengeance‘ managing to keep it all glued together tight and ringing true.
Back in 2019 the main thought to proctor in examination of the virtues and shortcomings of Smoulder‘s debut LP, ‘Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring‘, was this lingering sense that there was nothing about that record that’d felt fastened in place over the course of many years but rather that it’d all been carefully curated for effect, a traipse through a niche of warrior poetry and ambitious world-building aimed at peak resonance of fandom rather than their own substantive personae. The named references made sense, their recording and artistic voice were each high-functioning amateur in a fully acceptable and charming sense yet the album felt great in motion and intent. There was a glorious sentience to that record which was too big for its quite simple, steadfast ‘epic’ heavy/doom metal style and that isn’t to say that the band weren’t ambitious enough or that the sub-genre too was humble for their vision but that it was clear that debut was still a formative statement. The important thing to note was that they’d known when to deliver, how to deliver and none of that’d been possible without years spent obsessing over their intended niche in music, the merits of heavy metal as a connective experience alongside the actual the business of it, knowing the highest possible standard before reaching for it. The pace was set, sure, but they could do better and I’d begin to make the argument here that ‘Violent Creed of Vengeance‘ is certainly a better record, a bigger record and one which bursts at its seams with verbose tales and altogether tighter, faster attack in mind.
Just as that first full-length was incensed as a Moorcock (who provides spoken word on “Victims of Fate”) influenced reaction to trying times so does ‘Violent Creed of Vengeance‘ frame its characterizations around high fantasy in low times, speaking to moral health with frequent snarling back at the dark reality of societal regression. Though these lyrics are most often symbolic this time around there is no economy of space given to most pieces, the lyrics have quite a lot to say and with perfectly expressive vocabulary beyond the norm though this sometimes takes the place of tunefulness. For the longtime traditional heavy metal fandom this is a boon of personality in and of itself, since a pristine vocalist is not preferable to a storyteller with a ripping yarn in mind. That said, there is something to be gained from letting the instrumental gumption of such a record let rip a bit to retain some cinematic, experiential heft. Likewise I’ll once again make the argument for allowing the vocals to resonate in a natural space rather than relying on an endless hall of reverb/studio effects to create a sense of atmosphere and grand presence. I don’t believe the average listener will be as forgiving as I might be, the interesting outlier with a unique touch tends to outlast the more typically pristine on my shelf.
My mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts. — Any modern traditional heavy metal band risks being too sentient, too self-aware and referential to spark the imagination and the remedy tends to be within singular vision, complete control rather than building a band informed by the practiced physical chemistry of each participant. A troupe knowing each other as performers in an entirely exhausted sense before their craft can attain any sort of potential simply isn’t as practical today in all cases, especially when calculating the return on investment after an average decade of dues. With this in mind there is no indication that Smoulder have any particularly strong stage-to-album chemistry for a band that’d technically formed ten years ago but that their exploration accelerated in a very serious way around 2018 when their demo had gotten broader notice. Performances are not entirely void of tics, stylized nods and interplay which might drive the adrenaline or the dopamine in concert wherein the singular vision of their orchestration must serve the moment. The best parts of ‘Violent Creed of Vengeance‘ go just far enough over the top to serve the collective knowledge and practiced capability of the band unto a clear idyll. Their general voice has developed more than their signature in the meantime and we certainly see a new abundance of traits in dual-penned guitar arrangements as well as within vocalist Sarah Ann‘s admirably eccentric inflections. Though their collective psyche guesses right most often, the riffs and rhythms here do not suffer for a moment from unease, though true virtuosic familiarity and voice between rhythm section and leadership will take more time.
Epic speed metal surges (“The Talisman and the Blade”, “Spellforger”), dual guitar harmonies (“Violent Creed of Vengeance”, “Path of Witchery”) and soaring power metal influenced melodies come unrelenting in clustered reveal yet the doom metal side of the band continues to ease for the sake of best realizing these overall more active, faster-paced pieces which bring considerable energy to Smoulder‘s sound. Their style isn’t necessarily akin to Solitude Aeturnus as much anymore yet I’d found the epic heavy/doom metal side of things did eventually arrive on album closer “Dragonslayer’s Doom”, a song which serves as one of many examples where very strong bass guitar work from Adam Blake walks the ear along the path in the best way. The same could be said of each of the best songs on the album, wherein those performances lend a virtuosic touch able to break through the guitar and vocals dominated verbosity otherwise. Naturally my taste will veer towards the pieces which are either most aggressive or somewhat divergent in movement to start, “The Talisman and the Blade” b/w “Midnight in the Mirror World” are entirely too brilliant together as favorites, but without that huge ten minute album closer to punctuate the full listen I’m not sure I’d have been as quick to consider ‘Violent Creed of Vengeance‘ as a record fully within grasp of Smoulder‘s own standards for a classic underground heavy metal ideal.
The first and I believe only negative note I’d taken in the span of well beyond ~25-30 full listens of ‘Violent Creed of Vengeance‘ will be redundant on my part per this exploration, but it’d ring fairly blunt in mind after I’d parsed it for some time: The vocal effects are a bit too much and detract from the potential tunefulness and band-sparked atmosphere of the record. This was the only point that’d continue to glare as I considered the long-term value of this record from the perspective of someone (eh, me) who will purchase it. I would include the small side-note that this’d effectively dwarf the similar issue I’d with Smoulder‘s debut and its differently processed vocals, those performances now read fairly natural, tempered even. The overall package (complete with eye-buffing artwork from Michael Whelan) and its collective impact outweighs smaller issues in the long run, just as it does for many of my favorite heavy metal records be they ‘One Foot in Hell‘ or ‘Run to the Light‘. Experience suggests these are the things that push back to start and endear most in the long run, so, while I do think there are leagues more potential to be realized in their realm this is inarguably a finest yet and well above average feat from these folks. A high recommendation.
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