Despite all its loudly orated trappings to the contrary, metal is very much a genre that embraces the ideas of tradition and legacy. This really isn’t that surprising; all counter cultures recognize their own, and scrutinize members’ inclusion based on a selection of worthy criteria. In this sense, counter-cultures and underground movements aren’t at all different from the mainstream institutions they rail against, which is a sort of cruel, unyielding irony.
Against that backdrop we see Evile, the English thrashers (rare though that may seem,) who’s very idea of thrash is an alloy of ideas forged over the last thirty years. Their new album “Skull," is a veritable checklist of acceptable metal tropes, ranging from cover art to subject matter to the sound itself.
The best way to describe “Skull” is to say that is sounds like the unlikely synthesis of middle-era Metallica and early Slayer. Or, cynically, like Slayer will sound now with Gary Holt and Paul Bostaph as permanent members (which is probably too soon and definitely below the belt.) Mix in the guitar tone from Exodus’ “Toxic Waltz” and you essentially have “Skull.”
The similarities begin with the vocals of Matt Drake, who adopts the biting cadence of James Hetfield as well as the general power and snarl of Tom Araya. He can vacillate in either direction, as we see the differences between the title cut and “What You Become,” but never does he stray totally from either idiom.
The Metallica side of “Skull” begins with the idea that these are respectably long songs for a thrash album. That’s hardly bad; it allows Evile a chance to unfold a greater story, letting the rhythms and riffs brew properly for a six minute journey like “The Naked Sun.” “Skull” has a couple “…And Justice for All” get-on-with-it moments, but by and large the ability to compose complete thoughts is a lost art in thrash, so it’s welcome here.
“Skull” gets more like the Black Album as it goes along, particularly for a heavy, slow roller like “Tomb.” As the record progresses, tracks open up, losing density in favor of bigger hooks and choruses, and some ferocity is traded in for craft, which isn’t all bad, either. We ultimately get to “New Truths Old Lies” which caps the proceedings with deliberate pacing juxtaposed against powerful riffs.
On the Slayer side, the entire first half of “Skull” sounds like an interpretation of “South of Heaven,” with three round burst riffs and a harsh edge. The galloping hammer is proof enough that guitarist Ol Drake has listened to at least a few of Kerry King’s records. Blending the pacing of King with the timbre of Hetfield seems a difficult enterprise, but Evile makes it work for most of their new album.
Similarly, the album’s chosen subject matter is mostly torture, oppression and resistance, which has been hand in hand with thrash since its humble drunken inception, but is most closely associated with Slayer.
It’s probably worth noting that I didn’t enjoy “Skull” as much the second time as I did the first, which I think is a reflection of two factors. First, the drums seem fractionally offbeat. It’s possible that it’s a deception of the production and also possible that my ears aren’t interpreting the syncopation correctly. Nevertheless, something feels off. Secondly, I can’t shake the feeling that “Skull” is such a reflection of established ideas that I’ve heard it before, which lends a kind of mundane pallor to the whole affair. That said, I still feel like “Skull” is a high caliber album that will be a part of my regular summer rotation. I remain confident in it, even if I’m harboring a shadow of skepticism.
All in all, “Skull” is another capable album that evolves the sound of Evile, a band that has toiled in unfair obscurity for too long. One might suggest that the shift to a more open-space centered construction may be trying to trace the path to superstardom that Metallica followed. Regardless, “Skull” may not advance the tenets of thrash, but it is as faithful a recreation of them as I’ve heard this year. If you’re a torch-bearer for thrash, pick up “Skull.” I highly doubt you’ll regret it.