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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Bulletbelt - Rise of the Banshee

Album Review: Bulletbelt - Rise of the Banshee (Headless Horseman)
by Mark Brooks

Author Disclaimer: I don’t normally write reviews on a regular basis, mostly due to the fact that I don’t have enough spare time to sit down and write them out. However, as soon as I heard the new BulletBelt album in its entirety, I knew that I had to review it. I hope that through my writing you can understand why.

The sound of a storm fast approaching, ominous hooves gallop in the distance - a rider fast approaches, bringing good news or ill omens? Before one can find out, their head is chopped off in a flurry of tight bass chops, caustic guitar licks, and pounding drums. Before the body does its last convulsion within death's grip, sepulchral acidic voices are heard announcing humanity's final doom.

This is the opening image that BulletBelt's second full-length album Rise of the Black Banshee invokes. A rip-roaring ride of first wave black thrash punk rock that should have plenty of cross-over appeal and is a strong contender for album of the year. 

For those who are unfamiliar with BulletBelt, they are a 5-piece "black-thrash" metal band from Wellington, New Zealand. The band features a slew of talented NZMetal musicians from other legendary NZMetal bands such as Backyard Burial, Demoniac, Karnage and Pervertor. The line-up is as follows: Steve Francis (drums), Ross Mallon (guitars), Tim Mekalick (bass), Ryan O’Leary (guitars) and newest addition Jolene Tempest (vocals).

I put “black-thrash” in quotation marks earlier because this album is not strictly “black-thrash.” BulletBelt have incorporated far more musical influences on this album than their last album Down in the Cold of the Grave, which sounded like a perfect hybrid of 80’s punk and thrash with early-mid 90’s Scandinavian black metal. They went in favour of a more first wave black metal sound like Venom or look to ‘modern’ bands like Midnight for example. The more rock or heavy metal influences come to the fore with tracks like ‘Deathgasm’ and ‘Murderer’s Collar.’ If the No Tag (NZ hardcore punk) ‘Mistaken Identity’ cover was an ode to the band’s punk roots on the last album, then The Nod (NZ heavy/thrash metal) cover of ‘Sniper’ fits in perfectly here to represent the band’s approach on the current album. Although the punk and strictly black metal roots of the band have been dialled down in favour of a wider heavy metal sound, these haven’t completely eroded away. Tracks like ‘Death Tinted Red’ and ‘Numbered Tomb’ feature a heavy dose of icy, blood-curdling Scandinavian black metal and the aforementioned ‘Deathgasm’ also features a healthy dose of punk-rock stomp. These influences, although reduced, turn up in other places, like the artwork.


In terms of the actual music itself, BulletBelt have shown a marked and more cohesive song-writing effort on this album in comparison to their previous work. It’s not as if the band has completely changed their sound, but rather has tinkered with it to get the songs to be at their tightest. Razor-sharp guitar riffs from Ross and Ryan not only bring the icy cold wrath accustomed to black metal’s overall sound but also add catchy hooks that get stuck in your head for days. This accompanied by Steve’s well timed cymbal work and chop blasts really add more punch to the already catchy guitar licks. Songs like ‘Tarawera (Burnt Spear)’ and the aforementioned ‘Numbered Tomb’ feature these techniques heavily. For me the real star of the album is Tim on bass; he really shows that just because you’re playing bass, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to just follow what the guitars are doing. Tracks like ‘Minnie Dean´, ‘Murderer’s Collar,’ and 'Death Tinted Red' really showcase Tim’s prominent bass work, adding that something extra. That extra layer really makes the songs great pieces of music to listen to.

If I had any criticisms about the music side of things, it would be the lack of guitar solos. Don't get me wrong, The Nod cover features a mind-blowing guitar solo from the original guitarist (of The Nod) and ‘Deathgasm’ also features a great solo but I feel that this type of music calls for more solos. In saying that however, these songs do have extremely catchy leads in place of solos like in 'Tarawera (Burnt Spear)' so it is an altogether minor quibble. Perhaps on their next album, at the song-writing stage they could find parts where a solo (or three) could be slotted in. 

Regarding the vocals, I was saddened to hear that Fergus (vocalist on Writhe and Ascend EP through to Down in the Cold of the Grave) had left and was curious to hear his replacement. Those that are familiar with Fergus' ear-splitting vocals will know it would be a hard task to match that impenetrable scream. Has Jolene effectively replaced Fergus? For me, the answer is yes and no. I have been a fan of Fergus’ ironclad vocals from the minute I heard them. However, there was not much dynamism or range to them – the only quality it lacked. Jolene’s vocals make up for this deficiency by adding flair, going into low snarls, attacking mid-range and screeching highs. The only issue is that they’re not quite as powerful as Fergus’. Then again, Fergus was a freak of nature.

Jolene's voice however, adds a venomous, acidic bite to the songs on the album rather than a skull-crushing tone like Fergus’ voice would. Instead of having your skull smashed apart with a sledgehammer you have the (more painful) acid flung in your face, slowly corroding through your skin, melting the bone until nothing remains but a smouldering pus-sack of flesh. It is hard to imagine how the album would have sounded if Fergus had remained. In any case, Jolene does a damn fine job of stamping her own mark onto BulletBelt’s carefully crafted and honed sound.

Another nice addition was the inclusion of guest vocalist Rigel Walshe, of Dawn of Azazel fame, on the track 'Numbered Tomb'. At first I wasn't sure if his vocals worked here as I'm not a fan of Shining (SWE) or Silencer and the guest vocal lines were definitely in this vein (they are interesting to hear at the very least if you're familiar with Dawn of Azazel’s usual vocal style). It has since grown on me and has become one of my favourite parts on the album. Furthermore, the inclusion of more backing vocals/gang vocals on the album, especially on the track 'Deathgasm,' was a welcome addition and one that was lacking in previous albums. I hope that these trends continue in their future material.

On the lyrical side of things, Rise of the Banshee could almost be considered a concept album of sorts. The album features a lot of lyrics focused on the dark, seedy underbelly in New Zealand’s culture/history. For those who don’t know, ‘Minnie Dean’ is about the child-killing woman of the same name who was the only woman to be given the death penalty in this country. ‘Tarawera (Burnt Spear)’ is about the volcanic eruption which claimed many lives and destroyed a cultural landmark, ‘The Pink and White Terraces,’ in 1886. ‘Deathgasm’ is the title song for an upcoming NZ horror/comedy film and so, I assume, the lyrics are based around the movie and its concepts. The other lyrics are more subtle in their meaning but still convey the inner dark nature of mankind. 

BulletBelt have decided not to use Nick Keller’s highly stylised art like in Down in the Cold of the Grave but instead have used the almost cartoonish art style from Scarecrowoven, who also did Steve’s heavy/power metal’s band Red Dawn’s latest EP ‘Ironhead.’ The result is a mixture of classic Mercyful Fate/King Diamond mixed with early AFI (back when if you were into hardcore, it was cool to like AFI) art. The result is analogous to their roots from punk through to heavy metal/first wave black metal and perfectly encompasses the album’s musical outlook and approach. 

The band recorded at STL where they have previously before, but this time they recorded and mixed on a vintage SSL 4000G board - the board itself coming from Peter Gabriel's 'Real World Studios' and has been used for bands like: King Crimson, The Cars, Robert Plant, etc. The result was then mastered overseas at 'The Boiler Room', Chicago. That alone should speak for itself. If not, this album has an excellent clarity to it where everything sounds perfectly balanced. My only comment would be if the guitars were a bit rougher sounding in tone. But what do I know, I’m just a filthy vocalist. 

In summary, this is an excellent album and the band should be proud of the amount of hard work and effort that has been put into making a great album filled with excellent musicianship. They’ve made an album that from the artwork through to the lyrics captured the intended approach and outlook of the band. They have once again set the bar high for themselves and for the NZMetal community and I am eager to see how they will overcome it with their future work.

For fans of the band already, you will love to hear the development and cohesiveness that the band has honed in on for this album. If you're new to the band, then it is a hell of an introduction that you're in for! Don't let Rise of the Black Banshee pass you by this year and get the album immediately. You will not be disappointed.

For fans of: Venom, Midnight, Nifelheim and first wave black metal/thrash metal.

Favourite track(s): Sniper (The Nod cover), Deathgasm

Rating: 9.8/10

To listen to and purchase 'Rise of the Banshee' explore the panel below

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