The saying goes, everything is bigger in Texas. This adage rings especially true in the riff department, exemplified most recently by Steel Bearing Hand. Slay In Hell reigns atop the jewel throne of 2021 albums thus far. These Texas death thrashers have forged an instant classic, composed six distinctly different but memorable battle hymns.
To put it in terms of one of their lyrical inspirations, Conan the Barbarian, Slay In Hell is a worthy soundtrack to "Crush your enemies, have them driven before you," and hear the lamentations of posers.
Its fiery opener "Command Of The Infernal Exarch" blisters in with speedy razor guitar riffs, which cue the listener in that "A Lesson In Violence" awaits them. It only took for the second track, "Lich Gate," for my interest to become wholly hooked in, as this bouncy number rollicks with a crusty D-beat to accompany its chunky death metal. Its hooks are immediate, and a bit like Midnight in its punk swagger, but with way more aggressive growling and drums, which are battered mercilessly here by one Anthony Vallejo.
Throughout this album, Steel Bearing Hand wields their metal assault like a two-sided axe, split between either alacritous thrash metal and groovy, down-tuned death metal. A fine example of this is the third song "Tomb Spawn," which winds up with a Middle Eastern-flavored mid-paced section akin to Nile, then drops a hypnotic barrage of tight and low riffs.
As one might expect from a band whose name comes from Celtic Frost lyrics, there are numerous hat tips to their heavy metal heroes throughout the record. "Till Death And Beyond" kicks off with a clear nod to "A Dangerous Meeting" by Mercyful Fate, then follows up with the familiar tom and double bass cadence of Slayer's "Hell Awaits" for its breakdown.
One of this record's finest moments shines through the instrumental midsection of "Per Tenebras Ad Lucem" a twin-guitar attack lead by axe wielders Wyatt Burton and Parker Turney. Their ascendant dueling melodies and call-and-response solos are reminiscent of KK Downing and Glen Tipton, maybe with the speed of Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick in their prime. It's definitely the stuff that will improve your bench press max by 10 pounds.
Lead guitarist and vocalist Wyatt Burton really delivers the goods here on both fronts. It's evident he put in the practice to shred in all the solos, each with their own personality that made this reviewer yearn for adventure. Vocally, he balances thrashy screeches with harsh growls, employing the former for their speedy material and the latter for their hefty death metal dealings. Likewise, the bass presence envelopes the low end with a consistent crunch, courtesy of Chris Bonner, who also serves as the bassist for fellow Texans Frozen Soul.
Slay In Hell might "only" be six songs, but their 13-minute finale, "Ensanguined," is a justly ambitious note to end on. It's also the slowest. The first half of the song sinks into a doomy cavern with generous homages to Autopsy and Bolt Thrower. But, the listener's patience is ultimately rewarded, as they sprint to oblivion with a blast beat-driven purpose, and revisit all the death metal and thrash metal influences that had previously been explored, like the conclusion of a thesis essay in barbaric metal madness.
My top album of 2020 went to Battlemaster, and it seems like Steel Bearing Hand's latest is the record to beat in the death and thrash-tinged arena of epic, fantasy-themed metal. I had no major flaws with this record. If anything, my only critique is their previously mentioned habit of wearing their influences on their spiked gauntlet, which is a rather subjective criterion, to begin with. This record brought about several moments of deja vu, but this will probably be a welcome throwback to those listeners whose tastes aren't exactly suited to bands like Fever 333 or Poppy.
Slay In Hell is a pretty damn flawless record, the kind one can play at maximum volume to forget about their nagging worldly problems. Prepare to be transported to the smoldering ruins of Cimmeria, primed to ride into the death and glory that awaits beyond the grim horizon.
Fasten your leather studded gloves and put on your biggest sunglasses, because this one is a certified rager. OUGH!