Broken paper background texture with decorative elementsGod Dethroned’s decision to base their latest album, Passiondale, on a particularly bloody World War I battle – quite possibly the second most brutal war ever, behind only the one that followed it – both fits their toothsome brand of blackened melodic death metal and doesn’t: the band’s previous M.O. has been mainly anti-Christian, as is the nature of the blackened half of their sound. But God Dethroned’s militaristically precise riffing and often relentless drumming evoke the horrors of the dawn of modern warfare, and the lyrics don’t glorify war as much as provide a first person account, complete with the terror and panic of it. Passiondale’s melodic flourishes smooth out the edges (of what would, without it, most likely be a Marduk album), but doesn’t dip into sentimentality too often. Those edges are still sharp, the album’s concept is still one filled with horror, and by no means is this an uncharacteristic softening of a band like God Dethroned. Passiondale is a compact, precise, and immensely rewarding listen, essentially a barbed collection of riffs that you’ll most likely find yourself humming afterward.

Though a record more in a melodic death metal vein than a blackened death one, this isn’t a lighthearted jaunt. The melodic tinges are very Heartwork, while the black metal elements are nail bombs occasionally thrown in to put a part or riff over the top (the fierce opening “Under a Darkening Sky” bobs and weaves between the two seamlessly, while the title track swells with an almost In Flames sort of bigness). And though this is clearly a jagged composition by a jagged black metal veteran (Henri Sattler’s been at this shit since the early 90s), it’s unbelievably tangible. While he’s not necessarily employing the same sort of dramatic genre shifts that some of his other OG black metal brethren in Enslaved or Ulver have, Passiondale is still exceptional in that it’s 8 or so (not counting intros, of course) well crafted, ably performed songs that hold up upon returning to them.

The best song – predictably (and despite its clean vocals) the one that incorporates the most diversity and variance – is “Posion Fog,” flaunting all the things that make Passiondale great: a storming-the-enemy black metal opening that segues into some Immortal-style arpeggios (all with Henri’s gravelly bark over it all) that splashes down into some synths and richly melodic guitar leads. A building melody (briefly) leads to clean vocals, then falls back into the fray. The lyrics – “I cannot breathe/ I cannot see/ Poison fog… it kills me in my sleep” – display a rare sense of panic not usually employed in death or black metal, dipping deeper into a first hand account of the battle upon which the album is based. The melodic part returns, only to build larger than it did before, until the song basically dissipates into a surprisingly lilting synth line. But the tenderness doesn’t last, nor does it necessarily return. But it eschews metal’s obsession with machismo – albeit briefly – to shift the focus onto the frailty of the human spirit in times of war – the ultimate form of machismo, and certainly not a new theme in metal – and the fear and sadness within that frailty. Like any great metal band -black, death, or otherwise – they also know that relatively softer moments are necessarily if they’re looking to once again slice you open and spill your guts into the mud. Passiondale is a precise yet affecting record that’s not afraid of beauty or sadness, but certainly isn’t preoccupied with it.

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(4 out of 5 horns)


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