Reviewed: December 2020
Released: 2020 Still Heavy Productions
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
The third album from Newfoundland’s WinterheartH actually came out during the summer. But since we’re now staring the bleakness – especially this year, thanks to COVID – of winter in the face, it’s only fitting to catch up with it as the solstice approaches, the days grow ever shorter and the persistent chill sets in. Indeed, even more so given that the Norwegian-inspired black metal on Riverbed Empire recalls a mix of the “kingdom cold” grimness of vintage Immortal, the primal, proggy lunacy of Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and the epic, icy shrill of early Emperor.
Yet, convenient timing and some handy similarities sell this album kinda short. Though tracks like “Sunset Over Winter Corpses,” and the back to back “First Frost Harvest” and “Beyond The Frosted Graves” do call to mind Immortal’s mythical ice world of Blashyrkh, there’s more to these guys than themes inspired by the Great White North. The bulk of the nine tracks on this expansive effort – nearly 80 minutes of music – cover entirely different ground, as guitarist/vocalist Andrew Marsh explained on this very site upon the album Aug. 21 release.
Case in point, the title track, which is something of an alternate take on the nature allegory of Rush’s “The Trees,” with a riverbed full of trout and salmon, instead of a forest of maples and oaks, playing out a tale of conflict and oppression. Or “The Shipwright,” which describes the zealotry behind the construction of the German battleship Bismarck, which ruled the waves for but eight months in World War II until being sunk as the result of an equally zealous pursuit by British forces. So some heady stuff, to be sure.
The band are certainly not short of ambition on the musical end either, melding together the aforementioned influences with traditional death metal, symphonic splashes, straight up prog rock and even a bit of jazz in the fluid fretless bass contributions from Beyond Creation’s Hugo Doyon-Karout on the title track. The album opens with its longest track, the sprawling, nearly 11-minute “Marshlands” and with “Charmed (By The Dead)” offers only one song that is less than five minutes long – that by a mere one second. So it’s a marathon here, not a sprint – though there is plenty of velocity and things rarely drag.
And “Marshlands” itself gets started not so much with a roar, but with a whisper – plaintive piano strains, the sound of lapping water and the ethereal cooing of Devilment’s Anabelle Iratni – before launching into an elliptical Mayhem-like chug punctuated by Marsh’s scabrous rasp. That repeats – without the intro this time – on “Sunset Over Winter Corpses,” but sneaks in a bluesy guitar solo to provide a similarly jarring contrast.
The 9:31 title track is the most progressive-minded and complex song here, with Doyon-Karout’s bass lines essentially given a solo break, though accompanied by a drapery of eerie keyboards, about midway through. And this after a crunching breakdown, which is reprised at the end, delivers some of the album’s catchiest hooks. “First Frost Harvest,” which comes just after, does give “Riverbend Empire” a run for its prog money, offering a hint of Voivod in its shimmering riffs, weird banjo-like asides and crazy-quilt arrangement.
More straight forward is the Immortal-esque martial delivery of “North Star, Be My Guide” – though here again with some hazy organ strains to give it an epic sweep – or the full-frontal blackened death metal of “Beyond The Frosted Graves.” At a comparatively tidy 5:53, “Graves” is the album’s first song of less than seven and a half minutes. And when followed by the simple speed metal fury “Charmed (By The Dead)” – which recalls early Destruction or even Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica – its makes for an effective one-two punch.
The more direct, “shorter” tracks here, including the equally speed metally closer “Infliction” and the Venom-like “The Shipwright,” perhaps could have been be spread out a bit more in the sequencing, instead of clustered together on the back half. It certainly would have given Riverbend more balance, given that it is front-loaded with epics and takes a good while to really uncoil and might have made what is an otherwise solid album that much more impactful.