Like a lot of people, my first exposure to Switzerland’s Samael was with their landmark third album Ceremony of Opposites in 1994. Its take on black metal was more anthemic and controlled than the shrill, crude dissonance that was emerging from Scandinavia, and made for a welcome counterpoint. Groovy, ominous, dense and blasphemous, and punctuated by keyboards that were still a relative novelty at that point, it was really quite awesome.
Sadly, the band started putting black metal in the rearview mirror soon thereafter and have adopted a far more industrialized/technofied sound in the years since. While there was always some metallic oomph, the malevolent edge that was so strong on Ceremony was tempered by the keys, synths and electronics that became such a big part of Samael’s modus operandi – save for 2009’s more aggressive Above. Still, each time a promo shows up from the band, I give it spin right away, just in case, but usually come away disappointed. But kudos to them for continuing to experiment and take their sound in different directions – even if it hasn’t been to my personal liking.
So here we are now, with album No. 11, Samael’s first since 2011’s Lux Mundi. And once again, electro-metal is the order of the day on Hegemony. Dammit. However, the music here is quite anthemic and assertive, with propulsive drum-machine tempos and rousing swells and choruses, especially as the album opens with the title track, the signature “Samael” and “Angel of Wrath.” Despite the ample synths and somewhat muted guitars, they offer plenty bounce and spunk.
“Rite Of Renewal” and “Black Supremacy” show even more “metal” muscle, with their determined, sometimes frantic pace, ringing riffs and frontman Vorph’s fearsome roar. They are easily the album’s heaviest tunes and seem to signal a step up in intensity that, unfortunately, turns out to be a false alarm. “Black Supremacy” marks the peak of the album’s first half, and, as such, it’s all downhill from there.
Hegemony’s second act offers the rather pedestrian hard rock of “Murder or Suicide” and “Against All Enemies,” the more heavily electronic “Red Planet” and “This World,” and the Rammstein-like industrial stomp of “Land of the Living” and the awkward cover of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” which has been done to death already. Only the venomous “Dictate Of Transparency” really stands out here, harking back to the ferocity of “Rite” and “Supremacy” and serving as a reminder of what might have been had Samael not eased off the gas. Oh well.
It’s too bad the promising start to Hegemony couldn’t be maintained. Even though it wasn’t the return to Ceremony-style form I – and I’m sure others – have been pining for, the album’s A Side is as vibrant and potent as anything Samael has done in a while. So, consider this one a glass half full.
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