Michigan’s Battlecross is a band that has defied a small stack of odds and hasn’t sweat the minutiae in getting to the point where they’re at now. Don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about? Good, because I barely do either, but let’s try and try and firm up the holes (or poke more holes) in my already moth-ridden hypothesis.
The band burst onto the scene beyond their Detroit-area home with all the force and flair of a paper boat limping along the gutter towards a sewer grate during a Midwest rain shower. An early tour – it may have been their first, in fact – saw their van kick the bucket partway through, necessitating the purchase of a brand new one while on the road. This may or may not have been before Metal Blade came into the picture with whatever passes for financial backing in these days of reduced revenues for the re-release of their re-recorded independent debut, Push Pull Destroy (re-titled Pursuit of Honor).
Over the years, there has been much drummer drama, a vocalist switcheroo and, most noticeably in these eyes anyway, the band continually finding itself slotted on a mixed bag of tours ranging from the most wretched of toilet venue runs to summer’s fully catered, travelling cavalcades. They often open for and play with bands whose fans you’d ordinarily think would sooner jab knitting needles in their earholes than listen to their brand of “blue collar thrash metal.” But Battlecross’ ability to rise above that sort of horsepucky is indicative of fearless dedication, ability to pen good tunes, excellent live energy, being super-nice dudes and probably having a hard-working booking agent on their side. People will give them stick about “blue collar thrash” being a roundabout way of wrapping a gritty lunch bucket around the occasional reference to a sound that came and went with the ubiquitous NWOAHM of seven to ten years ago, but they’ve keep trucking on, managed to distinguish themselves and turn up touring with Goatwhore and Hate Eternal one day, playing Metallica's money haemorrhaging Orion Fest the next, before loading up for a stage-sharing stint with Crowbar, after sharing a tour bus with the Mayhem Fest’s (RIP?) lowest common denominator. Ultimately however, you don’t achieve any of this if you don’t have the tunes, which they certainly have demonstrated with Pursuit of Honor and War of Will, despite both album’s less than endearing second halves.
Rise to Power is album number three (three-and-a-half, if you want to get nerdy about things) and is probably the most consistent of the band’s discography. The quintet’s wavering quality and inability to maintain listener interest through an album’s second half or final third appears to have been conquered. Admittedly, the last couple of songs do sound like they’re edging towards a bit of wheel spinning, and when they employed the rather directionless acoustic intros on “The Path” and “Blood & Lies,” I was bracing the for the worst, but the energy remains intact. Everything up to and including “Despised,” song eight of ten, is choice, frilly no-frills thrash with tinges of melodic death metal and even slight nods to chromatic black metal, rocking out with en masse cocks out, grind in the form of drummer Alex Bent’s tendency to favourably alter the dynamics of songs by injecting a few measures of blast beat fury and the stellar work bassist Don Slater weaves all over and around the album. It remains criminal that his contributions and tasty playing continue to get overlooked by the metal cognoscenti.
Where Rise to Power makes its biggest statement is in not just the voluminous collection of intellectually engaging, yet fist pumping, riffs – check out ‘The Big Four’-ish shuffle of “Scars,” the spidery, single note up-tempo flash of “Absence” and the dynamic blips in “Spoiled” – but how the arrangements create a sense of forward motion that keep the above-mentioned songs cogently flowing and seeming shorter than their actual running time. Guitarists Tony Asta and Hiran Deraniyagala also make immense contributions with leads that aren’t thrown in solely for the sake of having a solo or because the rulebook says a song has to. Basically, their solos are phrased beautifully, are placed appropriately and come across as part of the song, not just a flurry of random notes spat out to fill space and appease the metal gods.
If there is an element of Rise to Power I’m struggling with, it’s that vocalist Kyle “Gumby” Gunther’s double-tracked, growl ‘n’ rasp sometimes seems misplaced, like he’s occasionally battling to find a suitable spot within music that calls for a broader displays across the vocal spectrum. His being so loud in the mix doesn’t help matters either. As a solution, or something to give future thought to, I’m not suggesting getting a Freddie Mercury wannabe or Rob Halford sound-a-like up there – trust me, I’ve been aurally picturing sparkling clean, air-raid siren vocals at various points throughout this record and it doesn’t work – but would like to see him expand his pipes to include the rawer, gruffer, more natural parts of his voice in conjunction with everything else. But hey, Gunther’s performance isn’t enough of a detriment for me to hesitate in giving this album a solid…