As far as Bay Area thrash goes, Heathen always seemed to get a bum deal. Here was a band that could not only compete with the likes of Exodus, Testament, Forbidden, Death Angel etc but arguably outclassed the lot of ’em with 1991’s technically astonishing Victims of Deception while also showing the majority of their peers how a comeback album should be done with 2010’s quite brilliant The Evolution of Chaos. They can hardly be called prolific though. And with just 3 albums to their name spanning a 36 year career, fans have been left patiently waiting for the return of their beloved band. That wait is, finally, over.
Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. Empire of the Blind is every inch the album you were hoping Heathen would release after 10 years away. It’s 100% ‘Heathen’ through and through, with this most recognisable of thrash bands sounding as vital as ever. Heathen may make us wait an inordinately long time for new material but they never, ever disappoint and fans of the band (old and new) will inevitably fall in love with Empire of the Blind after the very first listen. Yes, it’s that fuckin’ good!
Renowned for lengthy sojourns into epic thrash territory, it’s surprising (and refreshing) to find Heathen in full attack mode; stripped back, succinct and convincingly serving up a prime exercise in melodic thrash with added bite. Intro aside, opener, “The Blight”, may be as ‘Exodus’ as they come (no surprise as Lee Altus is in Exodus and Kragen Lum fulfilled live duties for ’em for the best part of the last 7 years) but Holt and Zetro would miss the nuance Heathen bring to the song, with their penchant for balancing raw aggression and muscular melody perfectly demonstrated.
The aggressive tempo is then maintained with the title track and “Dead and Gone” hitting hard. But this is Heathen we’re talking about here and this band do so much more than merely pummel you senseless!
“Sun in my Hand” is glorious, a shimmering distillation of how great thrash can be with its chugging, insistent riff, huge leads, soaring vocals and an old-school approach delivering an A-Grade exercise in melodic thrash; it’s relative simplicity betraying the sheer skill it takes to make thrash sound this effortless.
In fact, if there’s a better band than Heathen at writing catchy vocal hooks we’re yet to hear of them and will gladly take suggestions. Not one song here fails to ear-worm its way into your thrash-addled brain, such is the incessant rate in which Heathen pile on the catchy riffs and catchier vocal hooks.
Which brings us neatly on to the vocals. David White has arguably never sounded this good, with his vocals providing range, grit and heaps of melody. Fundamentally, he is the key to Empire of the Blind‘s success with his performance throughout proving virtually faultless. With that in mind, not putting David White’s sublime vocals on a track seems ludicrous but even instrumental, “A Fine Red Mist”, is a winner with Lee and Kragen shredding and soloing like madmen and proving, once and for all, that the old-guard of thrash will always outshine the new pups. Always.
The melodic balladry of “Shrine of Apathy” is achingly 80’s. This is not a slur. Quite the contrary, in fact! Heathen were always capable of serving up delicious platters of epic thrash splendour but “Shrine of Apathy” bravely takes things one step further. Potentially, this is the track on Empire of the Blind that is the most honest portrayal of Heathen’s capabilities and fearless sensibilities; such is its desire to buck the trend of all-out brutality and focus instead on performance, artistry and heart-felt grandeur. The fact that it’s followed by the viciousness of “Devour” further emphasises the diversity and skill on display!
Musically, Heathen have gifted David White considerable ammo to work with. Their crunchy, rapid-fire riffing is a joy to behold (from both a cerebral and a neck-wrecking perspective) and, again, while the awe-inspiring technicality of prior works has arguably been dialled down a little, it’s to the benefit of the songs and is exactly why Heathen sound so energised and so full of youthful vigour throughout Empire of the Blind’s entire duration.
When Heathen do up the pace, they’re fuckin’ electric and when they slow down they’re simply majestic. Which can only mean one thing: Empire of the Blind is an absolute modern thrash classic in the making! 9/10
Empire of the Blind is due for release, via Nuclear Blast, on September 18th, 2020.