Released: 2017, Relapse Records
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
New York’s Black Anvil certainly are one of the most ominous looking bands around. With the greasy manes, scowling visages and barely a patch of visible skin that is not tattoo-scarred, they seem equal parts Satanic biker gang and modern-day Manson family.
Yet the quartet’s fourth and latest album is, ironically, its most melodically infused and listener friendly, especially when contrasted with 2014’s mammoth Hail Death, although we’re talking a matter of degrees here. But still.
As Was strips away some of Hail Death’s excesses, notably its unwieldy, hour-plus length - though As Was is still rather long at 52 minutes - and tendency to wander, while at the same time amping up the band’s progressive flair and showing more of the mellower side they had hinted at in the past. The opening track, “On Forgotten Ways,” sets the tone with its roiling black metal ferocity and malevolence punctuated by eerie ethereal passages and intermittent bursts of clean vocals from bassist/frontman Paul Delaney over a sprawling, but riveting eight minutes.
The buzz-saw riffing of “May Her Wrath Be Just” is tempered by a bounty of chugging hooks and lays on the “cleans” even thicker with lush, almost dreamy harmonies as the song nears its end. This is replicated to a greater degree on the title track, especially during its epic chorus, but its sense of serenity is fraught with tension as the band build things to just about a boil before settling back to a mere simmer. With its lumbering sprawl, “As An Elder Learned Anew” is the most consistently easy-going track here, yet is also rather imposing as Delaney’s channels Carcass’ Jeff Walker with his scabrous shriek.
“Nothing” seems a more traditional U.S. black metal jaunt only to take a wild left-hand turn two-thirds of the way in, yielding to an electronic, almost symphonic passage that morphs into the sort of traditional metal lead work that would make Iron Maiden proud. The monumental “Two Keys: Here’s The Lock,” by contrast, begins with a Twin Peaks-like psychedelic shimmer before turning far more bombastic and ugly with Delaney’s layered Jekyll and Hyde vocals.
The finale, “Ultra,” is even more adventurous, with a grand folk-metally intro, gloriously melodic choruses and a chanted, a capella conclusion wrapped around its gritty black metal core. Of all the strange fusions here, the clashing elements don’t quite fit as well together on “Ultra” as they do elsewhere as Black Anvil perhaps overplay their hand a bit.
But given all the band crams into As Was, and does so with such confidence and aplomb despite stepping so far outside of the comfort zone they’ve established over three previous albums, one misfire is easy to get past - even it does close the album out.