Artist: Ares Kingdom
Album Title: Incendiary
Label: Nuclear War Now
The production on this record is even better than on the first album, Return To Dust. This record has the same overall clarity, but there's more low-end and perhaps a bit more distortion as well, which lends the songs even more impact than before. The occasional samples are tastefully done, also, and serve to accentuate rather than distract from the music. As on the first record, the guitars and vocals are right up front in the mix, with audible bass work and crisp, clear drums in the background. The lead guitar sound is especially notable -- the solos sound fantastic, and I especially like the way they've been mixed to highlight the variation between the different guitar parts.
If Return To Dust was the product of a band working to get beyond the limitations of subgenre, then Incendiary is the result: on this record, Ares Kingdom soar way beyond categorization, "as blood red contrails streak the skies". This isn't death metal, thrash metal, or heavy metal; it's something new, yet something old, forged from the essential elements of all three. Ares Kingdom is a much-needed island in a sea of bands that sound like other bands, but at the same time, they are still undeniably metal.
The songwriting on Incendiary is often epic, yet it's also refreshingly straightforward. Nothing is progressive-for-progressive's-sake here: every single one of these songs is suitable for headbanging. "Ashen Glory" is the perfect example; it's a complex tune, heavy on instrumental parts, yet the whole thing is built around a driving, near-frantic riff/vocal pattern. "Descent of Man" goes the other direction, packing many different riffs and tempo changes into a little over seven minutes. Every transition is effortless, every part serves the overall whole, and when the song's climax finally arrives, it's amazing -- Chuck Keller's solos must be heard to be believed. There's even a good dose of classic metal influence, particularly on "Beasts That Perish"; the balance between old and new on this track is brilliant, especially during the conclusion.
There are shorter tracks on the record as well: "Incendiary" makes for a ripping opener and a perfect taste of what's to come, "Silent Moral Flesh (Convergence)" is an aggressively triumphant track that's among my favorites here, and there are a couple of roughly two-minute instrumental-only songs. I like the way the band upends the usual short/fast:long/slow formula: "Abandon in Place" is simultaneously the longest and most unhinged track on the record, with a greater amount of feral, bestial energy than 99% of the bands going under the name. The combination of thrashing guitar, pounding drums, and snarled vocals here should silence anyone who dares to wonder whether all this development has tamed this band! The extended solo at the end is the perfect way to close out the album.
The lyrics on Incendiary deserve special mention: very few metal bands have this level of lyrical maturity. Fortunately, Alex Blume's vocals are more than up to the task, as all of the words are perfectly understandable and delivered with tons of feeling and force. Taken together, "Incendiary" and "Descent of Man" examine the rise of religious fundamentalism, both in the West and the Middle East. "Silent Mortal Flesh (Convergence)" and "Ashen Glory" likewise seem to work together -- a "liberation and challenge" indeed -- and "Beasts That Perish" dares to denounce the nihilism, empty hedonism, and smug self-certainty that too often passes for "elitism" in metal. "Gathering the Eagles" captures the dangers of appeasement and the inevitability of war... and "Abandon in Place" is about nuclear fuckin' disaster, in case all that was too complicated for you!
This is getting to be a long review, so I'll put it simply: it's January 1, and Incendiary is the best record of 2010. I'll be shocked if anything better than this comes out this year, so I might as well say it now. Hell, you can look for this one on the best-of-decade lists in 2020... and if something like this is the future of heavy metal, I hope I'll still be around to hear it. Highest recommendations.
Standout Tracks: "Silent Mortal Flesh (Convergence)", "Beasts That Perish", "Gathering the Eagles"