If you've frequented FEARnet's music coverage over the past few years (and I know you have, 'cuz you're cool as hell), you know that I've given a lot of attention to the Finnish “cello metal” band Apocalyptica – and not just because I'm a cellist myself; their sound is as dark, heavy and brutal as any guitar-based metal band. I thought I'd never hear another group explore the same classical string-based, guitar-free but totally heavy sound... or at least not with the same level of skill. But recently I was introduced to Judgement Day, who not only possess the same aggressively chilling skills, but also serve up horror-friendly fare like “Zombie Rodeo Clown,” “Ghost Hunt,” and “Pitfires of Hell.” Those titles fit this Oakland-based trio well, because they are capable of conjuring haunting melodic atmospheres as well as explosively evil riffage, with some progressive rock touches and even a pinch of folk, bluegrass and jazz for added flavoring. Their third full-length album Polar Shift drops next Tuesday, and here's a little preview for your pleasure.
The brother team of violinist Anton Patzner and cellist Lewis Patzner, in league with drummer Jon Bush, have been turning out original material for nearly a decade, experimenting with different styles and genres from psychedelic and progressive rock to jazz, touring with underground faves like art-rock unit Dredg, and eventually drawing the attention of guitar hero Slash – who recruited the trio as session musicians on his star-studded 2010 solo album. With Polar Shift, the band has dialed down much of the distortion and other effects to create a more purely acoustic and classically centric sound that disintegrates any notion of the band as a quirky experimental act... although there's still a lot of wild innovation to be found here, and rest assured they're still totally metal.
“On this album, we wanted to see if we could make something with unfiltered violin and cello sounds that fits with drums and still rocks as hard as a guitar album does," said Anton. The band isolated themselves in a remote cabin to conduct what the violinist describes as “a little bit of an experiment,” and the result is the band's most diverse and hard-hitting material to date.
The opening cut “Ghost Hunt” serves as a dark folksy prologue to the more deliberate rock to follow, but it's a great example of the band's expertise with multi-track arrangements and harmonies, expanding the work of just three musicians into a rich and cinematic soundscape (the closer “Altair” bookends the album with the same vibe). The real hit of energy comes through in tracks like the tribalistic “Demon Fire” and the exhilarating rockers “Forest Battle” and “Common Denominator,” all of which capture the true essence of balls-to-the-wall rock without the dirty distortion the band normally employs (on past albums, many of their riffs and even violin solos become nearly indistinguishable from guitars), but the heaviness is balanced out by dark, pensive pieces like “Waves” and the purely classical arrangement “Prelude to D Minor,” and they also manage to strike a solid middle ground between aggression and atmosphere with cuts like “Annexed.” They don't always play clean, however: the interlude “California Legislature” is a brief but bizarre venture into chaotic effects-driven insanity.
Genre fans will no doubt zero in on titles like “The Treachery of Kyodai Ken,” based on Bruce Wayne's ninja nemesis in Batman: The Animated Series, and the upbeat “Darmok,” a likely tribute to Star Trek: The Next Generation... but you don't have to be a genre junkie to appreciate the cosmic grandeur of these tracks, which would make for excellent soundtrack cues in themselves. If you prefer something more down-to-earth, they serve up some wicked bluegrass-style fiddling for “Redneck Rumble,” and edgy up-tempo folk rock for “The Jump," which features some of Bush's most skillfull lo-fi percussion.
While all the songs on Polar Shift stand up very well by themselves, there's an emotional arc to the album that tells an inner story, which for me plays out in a dark fantasy domain... because, you know, I'm wired like that. But according to the band, the ideal way to experience the music is in a live venue: "These songs were meant to be played on stage,” Anton says. “I want to give everyone an experience that can't be replicated.” Given the intensity and intimacy of these tracks, I can imagine how well that energy can translate to a live audience, and I'm looking forward to experiencing their act in person. The band is planning a US tour to kick off this fall, so be sure to check out their official site for details.
But for now, here's a cool sample of what's in store: check out this vid for their single “Forest Battle,” a performance piece that showcases the band's amazingly tight groove...