HEATHEN – Empire Of The Blind
Now, amids the global pandemic, David R. Godfrey-White (vocals), Kragen Cole Lum (guitar), Leonid "Lee" Altus (guitar, also for Exodus since 2005), Jason Mirza (bass) and James DeMaria (drums), emerged from the void to bring us another testament to their prowess (no pun intended). The 4th album, 12 tracks totalling roughly the length of Megadeth’s seminal "Countdown To Extiction" (42 minutes+) is their most varied to date with the incredible attention paid to detail and the proper balance of aggression and melody, (although not so much between tracks, but more on that later).
After the delicate ballad-ic strumming turned very heavy epic introductory instrumental, the next 2 tracks are some of the best melodic thrash metal in recent memory, giving the latest Testament, Megadeth or Anthrax (Slayer and Metallica not even deserving an honorable mention at this point in time) a run for their money. Heathen 2020 is like "The Night Of The Stormbringer", "Burnt Offerings" and "Something Wicked" Iced Earth combined with "Cowboys From Hell" Pantera and "This Godless Endeavor" Nevermore with some sprinkling from Darkane’s "Layers Of Lies". Think on these albums and remember the power, the melody, the vocals! Especially the title track – frankly, I haven’t heard something this good and infectious in years in thrash, but it gives me the same chills I got from Megadeth’s "Addicted To Chaos" (although "Empire" is much more aggressive) while, on the other hand, it strongly recalls Darkane’s "Secondary Effects" (from "Layers Of Lies"). And, of course, the SOLOS are "Rust In Peace" grade A level!
As I’ve mentioned before, the material is very varied, although, one reason why this is not a 5.5 or 6 review is the order of tracks in regards to variety (again, more on that later). After the perfect melodic thrashers, a tad different but not too much different "Dead And Gone" made me think of God Forbid’s "Gone Forever" stylings (perhaps not without reason as both albums were produced by Christopher "Zeuss" Harris). Heathen surprises with the combination of Evergrey and "Cowboys" Pantera on the perfectly, again, balanced, melodic "Sun In My Hand" (where lyrics are supposed to be very personal to Kragen). "Blood To Be Let" and "In Black" are classic of the classics in thrash metal, both stripped down to the bare mid-80’s ingredients (and recalling "Endgame" Megadeth), very good but somehow disappointing after "The Blight" (which we, the people, are) and the title track (but why they needed to be back to back I’ll never know). It is also here where Heathen gets very Iced Earth-y from their earliest albums. We are more than halfway at this point and the receding "In Black" seems to foreshadow a ballad.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what "Shrine Of Apathy" is, a kind of Panteric "Cemetery Gates" or "This Love", but, while the ballad-ic part is very well done and engaging, the chorus is astonishingly austere to the point of a lost opportunity to really make the track stand out. Thanfully, the Opeth-ian opened Heavens Gate cult-bashing "Devour" is an interesting offering, almost venturing into an industrial Ministry or Nailbomb territory with Reverend Jim Jones’ extensive quote "Yes, I can do miracles! No matter what you think. Yes, I can heal the sick and cure cancer! You write it down. You can call me an egomaniac or a megalomaniac or whatever you wish, with a messianic complex. I don’t have any complex, honey. I happen to know I’m the messiah!" amids the thrashy blast. And then Heathen makes another wrong move – the excellent over 5 minute instrumental "A Fine Red Mist" (somewhat recalling Killswitch Engage’s "Prelude" from the eponymous debut) begs for vocals, begs to be a regular song. Finally, "The Gods Divide" (about how the politicians use us as pawns in their campaigns) is a fitting melodic thrasher akin to "The Blight" and just as memorable, but why the closing 37 second closing miniature "Monument To Ruin" couldn’t just be part of it for a 11 track album (just like Megadeth’s "Countdown") is another mystery. What’s up with bands having conjoined short instrumentals at the end of the song as a separate track?
Overall, I am very impressed with "Empire Of The Blind". Aside from a few aforementioned missteps and a couple of lesser tracks, it is a powerful competitor to, say, Testament’s or even Exodus’ latest. The melodies, the riffs, the vocals (with not a shred of profanity in insightful lyrics), the sheer FUN you will have listening to this disc will hopefully shorten the time when the father of thrash, David Scott Mustaine reveals his much awaited 15th installment to the heavy metal world. I recommend it, especially title track (big time!), "The Blight", "Sun In My Hands" and "The Gods Divide", if you enjoy late 80’s to early 90’s thrash and heavy metal, with its flawless and powerful songwriting. In those terms, it deserves a place right next to Annihilator’s "Ballistic, Sadistic" as I say of both, they don’t make them like this, anymore. Or do they?