Album Review: Heathen – Empire of the Blind

I had to cover this album as Heathen were amongst the first bands I saw live. Back in 1991, June 25th to be precise, opening for Sacred Reich and headliners Sepultura at the Mayfair (RIP) in Newcastle. They weren’t an act I kept up with, and they did disband shortly after that tour, but they reformed in 2001 and have been an ongoing act since then.

Despite forming in 1984, Empire of the Blind is only their fourth studio album. Lee Altus remains the only founder member to be part of the band, though vocalist David White isn’t far off having joined in 1985! They, and long-standing guitarist Kragen Lum, are joined by Jason Mirza on bass and new boy Jim DeMaria on drums – the band having been without an official drummer since Jon Dette’s brief appearance in 2013.

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Empire of the Blind opens with the fairly grand scene-setter “This Rotting Sphere”, an instrumental number which acts as a bit of a build-up to the “real” music on the album. This kicks in with “The Blight”, ripping in with Exodus-like guitars and Testament-esque vocals. It would be unfair to say that Heathen are heavily influenced by either band when they pretty much grew up with both of them (and have shared members with both at some point or another), but the early thrash influences are laid bare for all to hear. However, Heathen always had that little something different and that really comes to the fore as the song progresses. The initial plain-old-thrash track evolves into something verging closer to power metal, more melodic while still maintaining its breakneck pace.

The title track takes this basic formula and reworks it in a different way, creating a huge monster of a song. Again, starting fast this one slows down and becomes a bit of a behemoth, comparatively slow and heavy in places but absolutely tearing the skin off you in other parts. Guitar solos are plaintive and emotive, not what you’d initially have expected, but they flow around the speedier rhythms with ease and don’t seem at all out of place.

And this seems to be Heathen’s formula. A clever mix of the Maiden-esque grandeur, but with thrash at its core. This is metal you can mosh to. Or bang your head to. Or sing along to. Or, bollocks, all three. At the same time.

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It’s hard to pinpoint a single stand-out moment on the album, it’s so full of brilliant riffs and rhythms. The flurried scales which open “A Fine Red Mist”, the closing salvo of the title track, the staccato rhythms of “In Black”… and that’s only a tiny handful. The whole thing is well produced, crystal clear and as good a modern thrash album as you could hope for. Given that this is only the second time in 30(!) years I’ve really listened to them I do feel like I missed a trick by not buying the first two albums back when I saw them play. I’ve really enjoyed reviewing this one – highly recommended.

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