As you've probably figured out over many years of FEARnet music reporting, extreme horror metal is a pretty cluttered landscape, so it takes a long time to sift through thousands of bands to find those dark gems that make it to the top of our playlist. But the day I came in contact with indie label Razorback Recordings, I knew I'd hit paydirt when it came to brutal gore grind, horror metal and Italian-style retro synth music – with a roster that includes Sweden's Anima Morte, a must-listen for fans of vintage Euro horror, and last year's Halloween pick Orloff, whose doomy, gothic-tinged death metal comes wrapped in grindhouse nostalgia. This year, the label comes through again with another unique and talented metal outfit: the trio Howling, who make their full-length debut A Beast Conceived tomorrow, have two traits that hooked me: first, as their name and fantastic promo art suggests, they're basically a werewolf-themed band; and second, they're one of a very small number of female-fronted bands in the horror death/thrash genre.
Before I dig into the music itself, however, I just want to take a moment to drink in this amazing cover art for A Beast Conceived. This piece was painted by Justin Osbourn, who takes his inspiration from horror movie posters of the '70s and '80s, and the old-school original cover art that graced VHS boxes in home video's golden age. He's totally nailed that era's unsettling balance of beauty and sleaze, and the label wisely capitalized on this by releasing a limited run (250 copies) of mock VHS boxes with the album. That should be incentive enough to pick up one of these babies... but seeing as this is an album review here, let's get to the gory goodies inside.
The studio trio of Vanessa Nocera (vocals), Tony Proffer (guitars & bass) and Elektrokutioner (drums) are able to summon an immediate, close-quarters wall of sound, thanks in part to a solid mix from Crypticus guitarist Patrick Bruss. The tight guitar/bass multi-tracking feels broad and mighty, but never at the expense of solid, thrashy rhythm and a gritty, sleazy edge, especially well-handled on “A Night in the Crypt.” Even when listening with the bass maxed out, the leads and drums have a distinctive live sound in cuts like “When the Hills Ran Red.” While Nocera is already noteworthy as one of only a handful of female vocalists in the horror metal genre, she also has one of the more distinctive non-clean styles in the field; while comparisons to Arch Enemy's Angela Gossow have probably been made, Nocera's vocals have a sharper edge in the higher ranges that is well-suited to this band's old school, riff-centric thrash, and more distinctive than the murky rumbles of so many gore-grind or horror doom/death vocalists.
The leading single “As Man Becomes Lycanthrope” is essentially the band's anthem: musically, it establishes all the core elements of their sound – blending the heaviness of death metal pioneers like Autopsy with the melodic hooks of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest (dig the sweet solos in songs like “Vengeance Unearthed” and the bluesy edge to the riffs in “Museum of Telepathic Madness”) and the speed and technicality of classic Metallica (“Demented Debauchery” is a great example) even the macabre ambiance of Celtic Frost – and kicks off a wide assortment of lyrical horror themes; not only is there major cinematic werewolf action (like The Howling, of course), but also dead-on movie homages to everything from John Carpenter's The Fog to exploitation gems like The Beast Within.
With so many hundreds of gore-obsessed death metal bands trying desperately to out-extreme each other, much of the love for horror/exploitation cinema and enthusiasm for old-school metal has been lost in a swamp of drop-tuned sludge, muffled grunts and and chaotic blastbeats. Thankfully, Howling have infused their tracks with the reckless spirit of grisly, sleazy horror flicks and an equally powerful reverence for the pioneers of metal, making A Beast Conceived a refreshing blast of head-banging horror fun.