Considering today is Friday the 13th, I couldn't imagine a more fitting date to serve up a review of GWAR's thirteenth studio album... which also happens to sport thirteen tracks. Battle Maximus marks a major turning point for the Scumdogs of the Universe in nearly three decades of debauchery on Planet Earth: as you probably know, it's the first GWAR album recorded after the passing of lead guitarist Cory Smoot, alias Flattus Maximus, who served as one of the band's core members for years (in fact, he first joined them thirteen years ago... again, that magic number) and a fan favorite. While his supreme talent cannot be replaced, his musical duties have been ably assumed by another skilled axe-man, Brent Purgason of Cannabis Corpse. Brent has also officially been assimilated into the vast GWAR canon, taking on the stage role of Pustulus Maximus (a relative of Flattus, of course), who arrived with his clan after the band called upon “The Horn of Hate” to summon a new rock warrior to the front lines. The “Battle Maximus” of the title refers to the musical trial-by-combat within the Maximus tribe, with the winner taking his place alongside front-beast Oderus Urungus and his mutant crew.
This saga becomes the launching point for a concept album – an approach the band has embraced many times in the past, as in 1992's America Must Be Destroyed (dramatized in the feature-length video Phallus in Wonderland) or 2006's Beyond Hell – and one which plays well into their notorious stage show. While the majority of their gore and slime-spewing sets involve the ritual slaughter of famous figures of politics and pop culture, or characters from many of their songs make appearances onstage to kill and/or be killed, some of their best work involves a running theme, with armies being raised and villains vanquished amid geysers of blood, green slime and other unmentionable bodily fluids. Battle Maximus presents a new super-villain in the form of “Mr. Perfect,” a being from the future who vows to steal the band's secret of immortality in a quest to create his own master race of mutants.
In more earth-bound terms, Battle also breaks ground as the first album recorded in the band's new Slave Pit Studios (which Smoot helped design), with award-winning producer Glen Robinson at the helm, working again with the band for the first time since War Party in 2004. In addition to Purgason, another new player has joined the GWAR ranks: bassist Jamison Land (former guitarist for The Burial), who takes over the long-standing (and often revolving) role of Beefcake the Mighty from Casey Orr, who left the band in 2011. These multiple behind-the-scenes changes add up to a decided shift in style and tone from GWAR's 2010 release Bloody Pit of Horror, and the result is a faster, more frantic fusion of the band's early punk/thrash roots and their darker, chunkier style of metal that began in 2000 with Violence Has Arrived (and has basically remained their fighting standard ever since).
The album's acoustic intro, accented by some spacy lead flourishes from Purgason, opens the gateway for this newly-shaped sound, while Oderus dramatically sets the stage with a surprisingly melodic monologue (he even channels a bit of Ozzy here), before launching into the album's first single "Madness at the Core of Time," which brings the thrashiest elements to the foreground, and the more menacing "Bloodbath,” which calls back to the band's primal moshpit roots with surging, hyperspeed riffs and anthemic call-and-response vocals, but with more robust and layered production, resulting in the best of both worlds.
Just about every phase of GWAR history is kicked around from this point forward, beginning with the schizoid riffs and polyrhythms of "Nothing Left Alive," colliding with half a dozen other styles that will leave your head spinning, while "They Swallowed the Sun" melds the raw brutality of Scumdogs of the Universe with elements of progressive and symphonic metal. They stick fairly tight to the punishing main riff of "Torture," which is driven home by some incredibly powerful rhythms by drummer Jizmak da Gusha (Brad Roberts), a fist-pumping chorus and a thunderous breakdown. "Raped at Birth" features one of the more dramatic solo lines from Purgason, and also contains the most perverse lyrics on the album (you can always count on GWAR for maximum gross-outs), mostly delivered in hardcore call-and-response mode.
More variety kicks in at the midpoint with hilariously off-kilter rap vocals of "I, Bonesnapper" (a callback to War Party), lending it a more playful vibe, and a bit more time is spent building a fun haunted-house atmosphere in the opening moments of "Mr. Perfect" (note the cheesy stock scream we've heard in just about every horror movie trailer), which finally steps up into a mid-tempo thrash pattern. Appropriately enough, the instrumental title track is one of the mightiest cuts on the album, an apocalyptic burner with furious double-kicks and plenty of urgent shredding from Purgason, who steps into the lead position, weaving some supreme harmonies with Balsac (Mike Derks), briefly parting the waves for a slam-tastic bass roll from Land. Creepy riffs and leads bring maximum horror to "Triumph of the Pig Children," which has a certain danceable Rob Zombie groove (although I have a feeling Oderus wouldn't welcome that comparison), and serves as a third-act climax before the more pensive, down-tempo "Falling," which is also one of the most melodically pure songs I've heard from the band in years. Old-school thrash melds with a touch of doom for the celebratory closing track "Fly Now," reasserting the vintage vibe that permeates so much of this record.
If you ever wondered how GWAR could possibly rebound from the devastating loss of one of their most influential players, Battle Maximus will not only assure you that the band is still as strong as ever, but proves that they can mold their unforgettable energy and attitude to fit almost any musical style (as long as it's unrelentingly violent), and fans of old-school thrash, which is already enjoying quite a renaissance lately, will find that genre clicks into the GWAR mold very nicely, maintaining the heaviness of their post-millennial mode with a nod to their '80s thrash influences. The end product is not only a fitting tribute to a fallen musical warrior, but asserts that his mutant brothers-in-arms are ready to charge back into battle at their skull-cracking, gut-ripping finest.
Battle Maximus drops next Tuesday, September 17th, via Metal Blade Records.
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