Release DetailsLABEL N/A
RELEASED ON 11/1/2004
Sands of Mortality
posted on 3/2005 By:
Before I begin to review this record, I just thought I’d perform a little litmus test amongst our metalreview faithful. Are you into Manilla Road? If you are unfamiliar with arguably the greatest metal outfit in American history (and why the hell not? Fill that gaping chasm in your record collection NOW!), I’m afraid that your understanding of Elephant's new record will be rather blunted. For those of you who worship at the altar of Mark Shelton, don’t get your knickers in a twist yet, I’m not asserting that this record comes anywhere CLOSE to even the weakest moments in the Road discography, but there is a definite nod towards Shelton and his American contemporaries (Omen, Warlord, Cirith Ungol and Brocas Helm) throughout the duration of this record.
Excited yet? Don’t be. Like any metalhead worth their salt, I reverently worship each of the aforementioned outfits, all of whom held their own against any of their more illustrious NWOBHM brethren. Yet, while this one-man project (Chris Passas from North Carolina, apparently) attempts to replicate the timeless, epic majesty of Yankee true metal, Sands Of Mortality is a lifeless, obvious and ultimately excruciating listen, falling pitifully short of the hallowed legacies that it struggles to emulate.
Essentially, Elephant is speedy Nordic black metal (bordering dangerously on blasty Norsecore) grafted rather incongruously upon a foundation of USHM and NWOBHM sensibilities, as well as a faint whisper of classic European outfits like Candlemass, Mercyful Fate and Memento Mori. The album is driven largely by trebly, high-register guitar work- hyper picked sheets of riffing are interspersed with TONS of shrill twin lead melodies and a host of solos.
To his credit, Passas’ guitar tone is warm and screams classic heavy metal, his use of simplistic, bare simple note melodies often recalls Mark Shelton himself, but his own capacity as a writer is severely limited- for the most part the entire record is an incessant stream of theatrical lead melodies, only a handful of which are actually worth keeping. Often the lead guitar rambles and wanders on inexplicable tangents seemingly exploring a string of notes that don’t lead anywhere. Manilla Road arguably championed a similar aesthetic in Shelton’s more psychedelic, prog-y passages, but the sophisticated songcraft and unparalleled atmosphere that his recordings exuded never allowed even their jammiest moments to sink into mediocrity or devoid of the Maiden magic that Passas is so blatantly indebted to.
It would be prudent now to discuss how irritating the black metal passages are to this reviewer. On tracks like “Shadow Of The Conquering Dominion”, Passas strives for a decidedly different approach from the noodly, tangential true metal that dominates the record, emulating vintage Emperor and perhaps early Satyricon and For All Tid era Dimmu Borgir. This replication is just as amateurish and just as haphazardly executed- the riffs absolutely reeking of standard mediocrity, the vocals pedestrian and stale. Awkwardly segued into the blasting Nordic passages, the true metal leads sound even more disjointed….the transitions just aren’t really there, and many times the awkward shifts sound like a shot in the dark, with Passas unable to decide if he wants to be Twisted Tower Dire or Keep of Kalessin.
The final nail in the coffin, really, is Passas’ vehement adherence to a drum machine. Unlike the programming of, say, the first Necrophagist record, the sounds that emanate from Passas’ console are crudely mechanical and excruciatingly tiresome, a perpetual blur of annoying, artificial clicks that really robs from the emotive force that Passas strives for. Blasts are CERTAINLY overused here, the drum speeding forward in double time when a more subtle and rudimentary beat would complement the music much better. The addition of a human drummer would do MUCH for Elephant’s music, allowing Passas to concentrate on writing actual SONGS instead of cut-and-pasted heavy metal melodies to distract us from the uniform mechanics of the drum machine.
Of course, Passas’ monotonous raspy vocals further retard the fantastical lyrical matter and cinematic, epic splendor that the project aspires to. This is no Bathory, I can tell you that much, and Passas is clearly no Quorthon. This record SORELY needs a vocal performance as eccentric as the quirky passages contained within, or, on the opposite extreme, more engaging melodies to make up for the linear vocals (ie Arghoslent, Grand Belial’s Key).
To be honest, there is nothing really wrong with the way this record sounds. There is an organic, warm feel that permeates this record, giving it a cosy, accessible sound. Additionally, the honest and gritty sound infuses the recording with a live spontaneity that is frank and endearing. The mix is great (my gripes about the dominant tinniness of the drum machine aside)- the clarity of the bass is omnipresent throughout, which I definitely appreciate. However, this really works two ways- while Passas does a good job making the bass audible in the mix, the volume of the bass merely serves to bare the dullness of the basslines. There is no Steve Harris creativity to be found here- the basslines are merely supportive and starkly unimaginative.
Bluntly put, this record lives and dies with the guitar- the vocals have no emotive capacity or dynamic range to complement the lofty lyrical themes, the drums are cybernetic and alienating, the bass provides a supplementary role as opposed to functioning as an individual musical entity. The record is exclusively reliant on the intertwining lead guitars. There are no counterpoint bass/guitar melodies, no cool drum fills, no variations in vocal delivery to ease the weight that rests on guitar lines that clearly cannot support entire songs, let alone a whole album.
That being said, this record certainly has its moments, and in some senses, should be applauded enthusiastically for peddling a sound that is largely original and distinctive. After 3 minutes of appalling Emperor worship, a GREAT doomy break and simplistic lead takes over on 03:11 of “Shadow Of The Conquering Dominion”, segueing into a melancholic passage driven by an understated, but catchy melody. The galloping, martial Brocas Helm rhythms that open “Ishtar Bleeds” are fist-pumping, goosebump-raising metal, while “Sands Of Mortality” exhibits much thrashier tendencies, with the vocal phrasing taking a frantic punkish, almost Carnivore-ish route before cascading into a morose, somber doom passage that definitely recalls Warlord’s more introspective moments.
Much like Manilla Road, who stubbornly advocated psychedelic, spacey ‘70s jam metal in a thrash-oriented age, Elephant is an oddball band in a field dominated by hypermodern, generic wannabes. Passas’ audacious traditionalism is certainly laudable, his influences are all present and correct, but the product of his dedication is still disappointingly embryonic. If he axes the drum machine, concentrates on writing cohesive songs and ditches the Emperor worship, maybe throw in some cool thrashier moments instead of stumbling lead melodies, we could very well be on to something special here, because the glimmers of brilliance suggest something greater.
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