Heathen – Empire Of The Blind (Album Review)

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Blinding thrash triumphs with an imperial sense of melody.

The revival of old school thrash metal that kicked off soon after the turn of the millennium has presented a fair share of blessings and curses, the most frequently cited in the later camp being that the younger crowd has been a bit too slavish to the past. Regardless of how prevalent this flaw may or may not be, one of the greatest benefits of this retro craze has been the resurgence of a number of classic bands that were afforded limited time to reshape the scene due to changing trends. Particularly in the case of the San Francisco Bay Area, a number of bands such as Forbidden and Laaz Rockit were expanding the very definition of the style with such riveting offerings as “Annihilation Principle” and “Twisted Into Form,” all the while still maintaining a needed level of melodic accessibility, thus cutting a bit against the more extreme character of bands appropriating more of a German, quasi-death/thrash sound as well as the slower, groovy sound that would eventually supplant the old guard.

This is the historical context in which a similarly styled technical thrash metal band in Heathen came into its own, appropriating the complexity and heaviness of late 80’s Metallica and the aforementioned younger bands out of San Francisco. However, this was accomplished in a manner that was a tad more accessible due to vocalist David White having more of a conventional metallic power to his approach and plenty of melodic hooks being woven into their songwriting. The resulting 1991 sophomore smash of an LP “Victims Of Deception” could have been best described as the album “…And Justice For All” should have been had it been mixed properly and been less repetitive, and while this Bay Area staple would fold tent a couple years later due to the culture dominance of grunge, the same second studio outing would continue to define their unique stylistic niche upon their reformation in the early 2000s onward.

Though proving to be among the least prolific Bay Area veterans to make a comeback in the past 20 years, Heathen has definitely compensated by refining their product into something truly formidable. Their 2010 return to the studio “The Evolution Of Chaos” generally mirrored the epic scope and character of “Victims Of Deception,” clocking in at well over an hour and simultaneously adopting a more modernized production approach in line with concurrent efforts out of Death Angel and Exodus. In contrast, their newest album “Empire Of The Blind” opts for a more concise approach, all the while still maintaining the dark and heavy aesthetic of their early 90s meets present day sound and the mixture of infectious hooks and flashy guitar gymnastics that set this band apart from the pack. It’s generally a team effort that features a strong new rhythm section in drummer Jim DeMaria of Toxik and Riphouse fame, and Psychosis bassist Jason Mirza; but it’s the returning guitarist duo of Kragen Lum and founder Lee Altus that truly drives this thrashing machine.

“Empire of the Blind” Album Artwork

Unfolding in a storybook fashion, this sonic explosion of tuneful rage opens and closes with a part of brief, haunting instrumentals in “This Rotting Sphere” and “Monument To Ruin” that remind a fair bit of the atmospheric introductory material utilized so heavily on Testament’s “The New Order.” However, once things get rolling the picture becomes far more complex and agitated than what a mainline thrash band would dream up either in 1988 or today, with blazing platters of thrashing fury like “The Blight”, “Blood To Be Let” and “Devour” being among the busiest riff monsters yet also the more concise offerings. On the other hand, equally nasty crushers like “A Fine Red Mist” and “In Black” up the intensity factor further and feature some of the flashiest lead guitar gymnastics heard to date, with the former starting off with a flurry of shredding brilliance right out of the Malmsteen playbook. Naturally there are some more restrained moments such as the melancholy ballad “Shrine Of Apathy” and the mid-paced melodic stomp of “Sun In My Hand” that shine quite brightly, but ultimately its speedy anthems like “The Gods Divine” that carry the day here.

This is an album that no self-respecting thrash metal fan should go without hearing, and most will want to spend the coming weeks playing it to death given the brilliant balance of impact-based aggression and smooth melodic swagger. Those who found “The Evolution Of Chaos” to be one of the highlights of the previous decade will find the same basic story here, though minus the drawn out, 7 to 11 minute long epic songs that saw Heathen recapturing their affinity for Metallica’s late 80s material. Likewise, those who have generally taken to the modernized incarnation of the overall Bay Area sound that has been ongoing since the release of Exodus’Tempo Of The Damned” will find a winner here, though it has a tad bit more of the older early 90s sound mixed in than much of what defined first generation thrash in the 2000s. In essence, this is thrash metal’s thrash album, adorned with enough catchy moments to rope in occasional consumers of the art, but true to form enough to keep the hardliners in tow. Thrash until death, then reincarnate and repeat.

Released by: Nuclear Blast Records
Released Date: September 18th, 2020
Genre: Thrash Metal

Musicians:

  • Lee Altus / Guitars
  • David R. White / Vocals
  • Kragen Lum / Guitars
  • Jason Mirza / Bass
  • Jim DeMaria / Drums

“Empire of the Blind” track-listing:

  1. The Rotting Sphere
  2. The Blight
  3. Empire of the Blind
  4.  Dead and Gone
  5. Sun in My Hand
  6.  Blood to Be Let
  7. In Black
  8. Shrine of Apathy
  9. Devour
  10. A Fine Red Mist
  11. The Gods Divide
  12. Monument to Ruin

9.3 Excellent

One of the most iconic figures of the Bay Area thrash metal scene scores another studio win, proving that while prolific output can be a blessing, it’s no substitute for an intricate, expansive and melodically satisfying take on the style.

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 9
  • Production 9.5
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