As time goes by, it becomes increasingly difficult to do reviews of GWAR albums. The simple fact is, there are only so many ways in common English that you can say “well, it sounds like GWAR.” Amidst all the blood and fluids that GWAR has dispensed over the last thirty years (or thereabouts, which seems unbelievable,) the band has quietly been highly prolific, never waiting more than three years to unleash a new album on their faithful followers. As a side note, the frequency with which GWAR releases material does little to dissuade their detractors who believe that GWAR albums are simply an excuse to get the band back out on the road. Whether you believe that or not, “Battle Maximus” represents the thirteenth GWAR studio album, and sees GWAR enter their fourth decade.
What makes “Battle Maximus” compelling from a history standpoint is that this is the first album GWAR has composed following the unfortunate passing of guitarist Cory Smoot. Smoot was subsequently replaced by Brent Purgason, portraying the new character Pustulus Maximus, since Smoot’s character Flattus was retired. According to press issuing forth from the band’s self-owned and operated Slave Pit recording studio, “Battle Maximus” is not only a faithful tribute to Smoot, but orates the next story chapter of GWAR’s ongoing quest for…well, no one really knows what and that’s part of the fun.
Both sadly and unfortunately, Smoot’s influence is sorely missed. With him as their lead axe-man, GWAR had made a steady ascension from the ranks of novelty sideshows to a credited member of the heavy metal community, lauded for their blending of punk, metal guitar and ridiculous horror theater. Without Smoot’s writing, “Battle Maximus” trends backward, returning GWAR closer to their roots. Now, let’s not get carried away, the band isn’t headed back to “We Kill Everything” or anything, but this new record is a step back from the virtuosity and aplomb of “War Party,” “Beyond Hell” and “Lust in Space.”
There are still plenty of fun moments, highlighted by the off-kilter soliloquy of Bonesnapper the Cave Troll during “I, Bonesnapper.” For a character who began life in 2004 getting his jaw ripped off by Oderus, Bonesnapper has come a long way to end up as a sort of ‘who-knew?’ crowd favorite.
There’s nothing wrong with Purgason’s guitar playing, in fact he drops several accomplished solos and bridges into songs like “Mr. Pefect” and “They Swallowed the Sun.” But there’s something missing from the proceedings that GWAR fans had come to enjoy, and possibly expect, during Smoot’s time with the band. It’s one of those indefinable somethings, like a recipe that’s good, but is missing a spice and no one can quite figure out which one.
That said, the album does get better as it goes along, culminating in the aforementioned “Mr. Perfect” and the excellent title track, an instrumental that is no doubt another of GWAR’s honest and earnest tributes to their fallen friend. Purgason is allowed to really show his chops here and does so in alternating bursts of speed and note placement. The two-song set soon dovetails into “Falling,” a song that is very unlike GWAR in its honest emotion, but works because we’ve never heard the band do that before.
Let’s be clear – “Battle Maximus” is not a cash-in by GWAR, or a mere vehicle to get everyone back on the bus. Rather, the album is a convincing but not outstanding effort by a band trying to redefine and locate their sound after a shock to the system. As we said at the top, it’s become par for the course to say ‘well, it sounds like GWAR.’ The only qualifier that can be added for “Battle Maximus” is an unfortunate one, which is that it ‘sounds like GWAR without Cory Smoot.’ GWAR deserves a lot of credit for soldiering on and continuing to endeavor when it suddenly wasn't fun and games anymore. I look forward to the tour.