'Calabrese: They Call Us Death' - CD Review

It’s been a long wait, but I’m amped to report it’s been worth it: Arizona horror rockers Calabrese have returned with their third full-length album Calabrese III: They Call Us Death, and they’ve managed to outdo themselves yet again, topping the critical success of their 2007 release The Traveling Vampire Show – and if you’re into old-school, cool-ghoul rock ‘n’ roll, you’ll know that record’s a hard act to follow. The brothers Calabrese have upped the ante of dark, dirty and doom-filled rock yet again, taking on a more aggressive instrumental edge and moodier lyrics that reveal even darker shades to all your favorite nightmares. Turn the page and prepare to dig your talons into some sweet terror tunes…

Most genres have loose but generally accepted rules – rules within which many filmmakers, authors, musicians and other artists work comfortably and creatively. Sometimes a more daring soul breaks those rules completely; there are also those who simultaneously embrace the structure of the genre and rise above it. What I’m getting at, in my typical artsy-fartsy way, is just this: dating back to the early days of the Misfits, traditional horror rock remains a well-entrenched musical style with recognizable elements, and lots of bands work very successfully within those confines… but others use them as a jumping-off point into new musical territory, while paying their dues to the rockers who blazed the path. Calabrese has always been one of these memorable acts – and for my cash, they stand with the best of the bunch thanks to their superior songwriting skills.

The trio of Jimmy (bass & vocals), Bobby (guitars & vocals) and Davey (drums) have long declared themselves “The World’s Greatest Horror Rock Band,” and if you’re going to wear that badge, you’ll need serious cojones to back it up, especially if you’re relatively new to the turf. But in their seven-or-so years, this unit has managed to prove themselves more than worthy of the title, as with each new release they manage to tune their musical engine for maximum horsepower.

The most noticeable from the free-wheeling feel of Vampire Show is the band’s shift in focus from more playful comic-book monster horrors to ominous, apocalyptic and death-oriented themes. Bypassing a lot of the wicked escapism of its predecessors, They Call Us Death is unmistakably deeper, darker and more mature-sounding. Interestingly, this won’t pull you away from the whole Calabrese experience you’ve come to expect… in fact, it nearly redefines it. Instrumentally, the tunes are still tough and tight, with a nod to the punk/psychobilly sound, but this time they’re shot through with molten chunks of straight-up hard rock, driving home the notion that we’re dealing with something more menacing than your basic surfin’ bloodsuckers and undead hotties.

The opening/title track sets that threatening tone with an eerie movie soundbite before racing headlong into a crushing riff tinged with unsettling harmonics, with Jimmy's vocals soaring to new heights of intensity. Black Anathema presents straight and solid hard rock with a burning edge and tight, smooth voice-doubling, while the gritty follow-up Deep In the Red earns its title with low, chugging riffs that present a nice framework for more smoky-toned vocals, topping it off with a wispy theremin chaser. Near Twilight is the first solid punk anthem of the bunch (you gotta have at least one crowd-pleasing chorus of “whoa-oh-a-whoa” in there) but its demonic lyrical themes are a clear indication of the darker path we're traveling here.

You know you've crossed fully onto the devil's turf when we get to Blood of the Wolf, my personal pick of the litter (and not just because werewolf themes are close to this writer's beastly heart). This blistering number features thrash-tempo riffage and coarser, James Hetfield-style vocals to match; the only downside is its short running time (just over two minutes), but that's one part of the horror-punk toolkit that these guys still use pretty consistently. Another dead-on cut is the following Within the Abyss, which opens with a nod to Fulci fans in the form of a sample from The Beyond and quickly gives way to a thundering theme that syncs up well with the whole seven-doors-to-hell concept. Venomwolf maintains the same level of intensity, and adds some inventive vocal harmonies.

Summon the Beyond marks a slightly less memorable return to the hellish imagery of Within the Abyss, but the wicked-cool Violet Hellfire quickly recaptures the apocalyptic mood with low burning riffs and subterranean bass lines, while still managing to carve out a memorable chorus hook and some great three-part vocal harmonies. A particularly creepy movie excerpt kicks off The Machine of Instant Death, which has a more subdued instrumental tone and a pained, pleading edge to the vocals, before Endless Night kicks this desperate intensity into a higher gear, culminating in an explosive bridge that showcases the brothers' combined instrumental skills. The record comes to a fine close with Loveless God, which features another superb display of instrumental excellence... and throws in a goofy sonic surprise after about 8 minutes of dead air.

To further sweeten the deal, the band has wrapped up the CD package in gorgeous artwork by acclaimed comic artist Eric Powell (creator of the ultra-cool The Goon) depicting the brothers Calabrese in the mode of a Basil Gogos Famous Monsters cover, which will have fans (yours truly included) clamoring for a vinyl release just to see it giant-sized.

In my review of The Traveling Vampire Show, I commented that anyone interested in exploring horror rock should start with the classics (Misfits, The Damned, etc.) and work their way forward to the high-caliber “new” acts like this trio... but with the arrival of They Call Us Death, I'd like to amend that statement from this point forward by including Calabrese in the ranks of the greats, as they stand claw-to-claw with the finest in the genre, and will be remembered for years to come. But hey, go ahead, be a punk and don't take my word for it... just be sure to drop by the Calabrese MySpace for a listen.

[On a side note, be sure to look for the band's performance cameo in the After Dark Horrorfest 4 entry The Graves, shot in their home state of Arizona and now on DVD... and also be sure to check out Lamb of God frontman D. Randall Blythe in a wacked-out supporting role.]