There are many angles that will concern the column blurbs, feature stories and reviews submitted for public consumption concerning this, the latest and fourth album by this Transatlantic duo. There will be much made about the pair of Hanno Klänhardt (guitar/vocals) and Erinc Sakarya (drums) making the move from Nuclear Blast to Metal Blade, their almost breaking up while creating Pain is Forever and This is the End, how the creative process was ostensibly a background event to the mayhem of the last two years of Klänhardt's life and the insidious and significant impact the Grungetown Hooligans II covers record had on their process.
And since I've never claimed to have had an original thought snake its way through my cranial matter and out my mouth (or through my fingertips, as it were), let's zero in on one of the already tired talking points. That would be the latter, as it's the most upfront and noticeable and what has made dramatic difference to Mantar's overall sound. The noise rocking blackened sludge hasn't been entirely extracted from the Mantar nous, but what they built their name on now acts more as a supporting undercurrent, taking a back seat to thicker grooves, anthemic refrains, head nodding rhythms and a greater exploitation of the fist-in-the-air-ology school of song writing. The tracks the band re-imagined for Grungetown Hooligans II came from the varied likes of Babes In Toyland, Mudhoney, The Jesus Lizard, L7 and Sonic Youth. Our assumption is that in the process of going through their collection of '90s cassettes and first run CDs, deciding what to cover, figuring out how the give their selections that "Mantar touch," then practicing and recording the songs, the era's song writing ethos seeped into the duo's pores. How could it not? The past always informs the future.
This is made patently clear from the first notes of Pain is Forever and This is the End. The riffing to "Egoisto" trades in blatant abrasion for a shuffling and bluesy down-picked swagger backed by call-and-response sequences bordering on the lunkheaded and should be easy enough for supporters to latch onto for a quick sing-scream-spit back into Klänhardt's face. "Grim Reaping" digs into the roots of classic rock with a riff that is the sonic manifestation of .38 Special's beard hair getting caught in the crooked, cigarette-stained teeth of Bon Scott-era AC/DC. That is then complemented by the fuzz of a solid gut punch straight from the heart of King Buzzo's 'fro. The good time strut continues with "Walking Corpse" which has a more insistent stride that collides the worlds of pre-Eliminator ZZ Top and post-Justice Metallica.
And while stripped down riffs and COVID catchiness do dominate throughout this album, there are pieces like "Orbital Pus" and "New Age Pagan" which employ noisy layers that fill out the Mantar sound, going so far as the put the duo on par with traditional, full lineup bands. I still can't say with certainty the additional strata are created on synth or a second (or third) guitar run through a conglomeration of pedals, but I can, with inverse amounts of confidence, point out how these two particular songs recall Girls vs. Boys and Cop Shoot Cop, two '90s-ish bands on the distant outskirts of the grunge scene that nevertheless got caught up in the major label alt-rock signing frenzy.
And while all of the above may lean towards reneging on the promise that the Mantar of the past hasn't been completely abandoned, know that it hasn't. Pain is Forever and This is the End is simply a spot where worlds collide and a new song writing blush is explored. Case in point: "Of Frost and Decay" which worms a pretty, Kim Thayil-inspired intro with Andy Cairns' favourite drum beat and black metal consonance. Keeping with the 'simple and slamming is best' mentality, "Piss Ritual" rages like Bleach-era Nirvana and Songs About Fucking-era Big Black, though not as loosey-goosey as the former and not as stanchion-like as the former, especially as it makes brief ventures into blast beat territory.
On the other hand, the biggest issue with this album is how, similar to Nirvana, many of the songs follow a similar dynamic tack. And much like Cobain and Co., Mantar makes insistent use of vocals taking center stage during the verses, full throttle pre-chorus and post-chorus crescendos after cascades of sustained power chords, hammer-ons and pull-offs comprise the choruses. Their above-average utilization of tension and release and having prominent vocal and guitar hooks to hang one's hat on is hardly a bad thing. However, the repetitive structural methodology makes for a noticeable sameness. Here's hoping this is a pattern the band finds a way to shake up without further succumbing to something like balladic closer "Odysseus," an area Mantar might want to reconsider (or better bone up on) in light of the lack of nuance to Klänhardt's gravelly bellow. Otherwise, we're loving the new portals the band have opened and explored and, to paraphrase Lee Dorian and Cathedral, are totally feeling the groove.