Album Review: HEAVEN SHALL BURN Wanderer
In the interests of research, context, and compare-and-contrast before digging into to write this review, I went back and picked through my record collection with the intention of spinning a few of the Heaven Shall Burn albums in my possession to see how things compare to Wanderer. First off, I didn’t even realise the majority of the band’s discography was resting comfortably in my house: six of the eight albums the German metalcore bruisers have issued since forming in 1997!
How exactly did that happen? Put it this way: Heaven Shall Burn is a band that I’ve long enjoyed and consider myself a fan of, but not to the point of all-consuming obsession. There will be no following them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, MySpace, Bebo or Friendster and checking for updates every minute or so. But in going back over the cross-section of their releases, a noticeable strain can be tracked starting in their early years when they took their love, respect and worship for Bolt Thrower – their first EP was entitled In Battle…There is No Law, for criminies sake! – and brass knuckled it into their love, respect and worship for metallic hardcore bands like Adamantium, Integrity and Acme.
HSB circa the late 90's/early 00's was a more pounding and riffier beast, with vocalist Marcus Bischoff monosyllabically shredding his throat in "banshee strop" mode as opposed to cookie monster growling. As the sands have tumbled through the hourglass, Bischoff’s voice has maintained the brutality, but he’s developed a wider and deeper range, and the band has matured in their utilization of populist grooves and walls of layered guitar melodies that, more often than not, have Maik Weichert and Alexander Dietz diverging from what they actually play as a unit to converge and collapse onto classy passages that offer a greater degree of dynamism. The result is a deeper sense of conglomeration in the songwriting and a more refined sense of structure to their sound. If all that flowery language only paints the equivalent of a verbal Jackson Pollack for you, imagine stirring a pot in which Killswitch Engage, Kataklysm, Caliban, Bolt Thrower and Exodus are the ingredients.
Wanderer is the band’s eighth album and some gradual, almost imperceptible, forward movement has been made from previous full-length, 2013’s VETO. The Weichert/Dietz dyad has continued working towards being crowned guitar duel kings; their sense of counterpoint, harmonization and twinning has become super-slick and almost effortless. You can hear how they go back and forth between heads down pound ‘n’ crunch and a more expansive, almost baroque, instrumental stratification on “Prey to God” in which the guitars wind and twist at prescribed points, opening the heart of the composition. In “Passage of the Crane” and “They Shall Not Pass” the guitar ripostes are plentiful and swift as the pair moves from powerful, doubled riffs that sound like a war-torn infantry marching through the town square of a recent conquest before splitting off layers of hummable melodies and quarter-note rhythms in the song’s movements with drummer Christian Bass adding and subtracting appropriate double kick patterns as complements.
The difference is especially noticeable when you compare the approach taken on their cover of Sodom’s “Agent Orange” and some of the more thrashing moments of the album’s latter half. For the former, additional meat is put on the thrash bone with a huge guitar tone and locked in speed-picking (by the way, HSB has established itself as an excellent cover band in recent years, especially over the course of the past three albums on which they’ve thrown down ripping renditions of Blind Guardian and Edge of Sanity tunes). A similar approach is taken on “Save Me” and “Corium” two of the more up-tempo and fist swinging offerings. Songs like “Bring the War Home” and “Extermination Order” balance out propulsive metalcore, a warm Slayer-like sensibility and melodic death metal melodic riffs that would feel at home in an Omnium Gatherum rehearsal or something from the good parts of In Flames’ discography.
At thirteen tracks, though, the band’s approach does present as repetitive and samey, wearing on patience as the album’s rolls along. The improvements made in the band’s songwriting, musicianship and intra-song maturation haven’t been extended to the ability to sustain effective impact over an extended period of listening. But, that might be more a symptom of the subgenre itself, as metalcore bands aren’t exactly known for being kings of the deep cuts. Hence, the covers (possibly) and the reason you should use “Agent Orange” as the line in the listening sand between HSB’s more elegant and refined side and their flirtations with thrash and melodic death. Definitely a record you should take one half at a time.