Review: Smoulder – Violent Creed Of Vengeance
“I’m all about swords! How did you know?”
From Guts to Groo, I’m a sucker for lonely fantasy sword-swingers. If you’re the kind of nerd who reads blogs like this, I bet you are too. 4 years ago, my heart was pillaged and sacked by Smoulder, when they released their majestic debut album, Times Of Obscene Evil And Wild Daring (You’ll never convince me that isn’t actually Griffith from Berserk adorning the cover). The day draws nigh that the Canadian five-piece will take to the battlefield again, and Smoulder come with more fire this time, switching tactics from their gripping epic doom approach of yesteryear and snapping the reins to gallop in with Violent Creed Of Vengeance. I used to file them in my brain as “Eternal Champion but brooding”, and this forward evolution only brings them more into alignment. I might even suggest that Smoulder is now reigning as overlord supreme in the niche of Renfaire Ragers (joined by the aforementioned EC, Sumerlands, and Gatekeeper), though it is certainly a pitched battle. But to the stoic warrior, more savory than besting any opponent is the surpassing of one’s own limits, and Smoulder have steadfastly outdone themselves.
Violent Creed quickly demonstrates its improved songwriting from the start. Right on the title opener, “Violent Creed Of Vengeance” has its skull-stomping boots on. The song comes crunching out with twirling leads at its flanks, stretching out for space like deft jabs from a speartip. The main batch of riffs works like drilled phalanxes, or perhaps the warp and weft of a tapestry, each rank making way for the next. Triplets of rhythm guitar shift their formation between the first two verses, seamlessly climbing to join the established leads and reorganize into a wilting whine. As it hits the title chant, the track feels like it rises up from its knees and shakes the mud off its pauldrons, drinking in sun rays and displaying a severed head trophy. The expanded chords and changes in the refrains only bolsters what was already Smoulder’s strongest asset, vocalist Sarah Ann’s striving, heady soprano. The sense of motivation and triumph is invigorating.
In fact, Violent Creed comes across more muscular in its build than before. It’s not just the string section; the drums also fill the soundscape more with longer, more considered fills, helping to unseat the doom chariot from its mire and start picking up serious pace. While their debut went far with windswept doomy desolation, now Smoulder show what they can do in close order, where the instruments knit tightly for head-on force. The overall arrangement and stylistic tweaking makes the songs crackle, without losing the weary grandeur that painted such a stirring vista on Obscene Evil. Appropriately, Violent Creed Of Vengeance harnesses the increased speed and packed instrumentation to add a new dimension to its predecessor’s slow, sparse choruses. No longer weary and wailing with a sellsword’s bitterness, but swearing fiery vengeance.
“Midnight In The Mirror World” is one to boast this hotter, brighter burn. Smoulder’s foundational doom roots show through here, reducing speed and letting the notes carry out into reverant thrums. It still fits right in against the tracklist of Obscene Evil, but the robust reward of Violent Creed‘s armored-up sound sets it apart as a more stalwart combatant. A healthy variety of grooves carry “Mirror World” along a hallowed path, well-trod to be sure, but the main riff has so much flexibility, so many new tricks to keep the path twisting, that it never explores the same territory. Underneath it all, the drama keeps climbing and climbing, like the craggy steps of a mountain temple.
The contrasting midpointer, “Path Of Witchery” is my highlight, the best showcase of the band’s more daring melodic sensibilities. The riffs are a unified volley of fleet tremolo, launching into a chorus that darts like a viper. I love the proper chord changes happening here, augmenting the vocals’ sense of persistence, resolve, and determination. When the leads take the field, they come together just marvelously, creating such a romantic interplay between lines. Just an arresting saga in sound. Smoulder’s leads certainly aren’t the shreddiest, but they are finely honed and like all the other musical ideas, so well engrained and supported that they take on the stirring character of the lyrics, glinting with mythopoetic luster.
Violent Creed Of Vengeance has me tightly in its chainmail grip. Through to the very last movements of “Dragonslayer’s Doom” (itself a self-declaration of genre as much as a title), there is no containing this album’s might, its bravado, its unrelenting magnetism. When working in a metal scene so focused on traditional tropes and hero worship, garnering any kind of renown for oneself is a challenge against the glory of paragons past. A challenge not only in the sense of a difficult obstacle, but also in the sense of throwing down your gauntlet, to stake your own illustrious tale against the ancients. Smoulder could prostrate themselves at the tomb of Manilla Road or the antediluvian throne of Cirith Ungol, but instead turn their eyes to fresh lands afield, hungry for their own conquest.
Violent Creed Of Vengeance will be available April 21st from Cruz Del Sur Records.