Album Review: Kreator - "Phantom Antichrist"

As Kreator hovers around thirty years in the game, it's tough to have new commentary about their efforts. What can be said about Kreator that hasn't been said before? The corollary question to all of this is "is there anything new that needs to be said?"

No genre has benefited from heavy metal's latest resurgence more than old-school thrash, and Kreator is not immune to the resurrection bug. Holding the flag for German bands at a time when the genre was indisputably dominated by legions of Americans, Kreator, then and now, served as the litmus test for heavy metal fanhood. When at a social event where someone started pontificating about heavy metal, the discerning fan could always question the speaker if he (or less commonly, she,) was familiar with Kreator. The metal anointed would respond in the affirmative; the uninitiated would not.

Kreator has seized the opportunity of thrash's revival in their iron grip, with the critically acclaimed "Hordes of Chaos" in 2009, and now a second album "Phantom Antichrist" for 2012. Among thrash's elite, only Megadeth and Overkill to this point have pounded out two records in the same space, with Testament soon to join them. Vocalist Miland "Mille" Petrozza is boasting that this new album is head and shoulders above any of the "Big 4's" releases dating back to 2008, and while that may be overstating things, "Phantom Antichrist" is an impressive effort in heavy metal revival.

What Kreator does differently from the Big 4's recent releases, in keeping with the pattern of German thrash bands Exumer and Accept, is stay the same. As the metal world has evolved and revolved, Kreator has refused to budge. They have always exemplified the crunchy, precise nature of European thrash, and that acuity (and dare I say clean feel,) permeates the very being of "Phantom Antichrist." The signature buzz of an electric guitar being picked at warp speed is totally intact on this album, and takes the listener on a journey back to when studded jackets and Venom were new and revolutionary.

What shocks about "Phantom Antichrist" is how accessible it is. While still maintaining the powerful thrash roots that the genre and audience demands, the album is open and versatile. That's not the say that the speed stops, but rather that the permutations and interpretations on the album are variable and intriguingly juxtaposed. Kreator shows their ability to balance guitar-heavy replications with beat-driven ones, giving their record an academic side while still marking off all the items on the checklist of thrash prerequisites. Album starter “Mars Mantra + Phantom Antichrist” combines all the sharp two-note progressions that Slayer fans have come to demand, but blends them with a melodic, sing-able chorus to create a song with a unique feel.

The well-spaced, breathable pacing of “Phantom Antichrist” makes the whole album seem familiar from beginning to end. Not in the sense that we as listeners have heard all this before (though that argument is on the table,) but in the feeling that this music feels right. It reflects all the expectations we’ve formed around thrash that sticks to the mid-1980’s design structure. Listen to “Victory Will Come” to hear what’s practically a gang-chorus sing-along in the making.

Kreator's album spends a lot of time reminding the listener that proper riff-crafting is less about how many notes and more about what those notes are. Rather than try to break the land speed record, guitarist Sami Yli-Sirniö creates familiar, catchy riffs and combines them effortlessly with substantive but slippery solos. When he does bust through the sound barrier as in the excellent “From Flood Into Fire” it’s because the song calls for it, not simply because he can. The song then immediately transitions into a down-tempo bridge, where he backs up the switch with an unexpectedly soulful and invigorating solo.

The only knock here is that in steadfastly keeping vise-gripped on their roots, Kreator falls prey to some of the shortcomings that the genre has always had. Namingly, the obsession with trying to pack one meaningful, super-serious, big-chorused thrash-ballad onto the album, in this case the album’s closer, “Until Our Paths Cross Again.” It’s simply unnecessary.

There are not any singular homeruns on "Phantom Antichrist" like Slayer experienced with the featured tracks on "World Painted Blood," but Kreator's album cycles the lineup with singles and doubles, producing the same kind of impact in a different way. The guitar tone and the skilled players crafting the riffs pair nicely to make "Phantom Antichrist" one of the defining benchmarks in the thrash revival.

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