What happens when you cross two members of Biffy Clyro with Slayer’s Dave Lombardo for a new band which you call Empire State Bastard and the album Rivers of Heresy? The filthiest album you’ll hear all year, that’s what. It’s a name and ethos which is so confrontational, so provocative and evocative that you simply know before you start the album you’re not in for some acoustic strumming side-project (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
However, when you listen to this, there’s a sense of catharsis in Simon Neil’s vocals and Mike Vennart’s skull-crushing riffs. This has been gestating for a long time. And listening to the lyrics, it seems post-lockdown society is the spark which lit the powder keg for them. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of watching Biffy Clyro live, you’ll know that Vennart’s no slouch on the guitar and here, he’s managed to plumb the depths of grindcore, metal and especially noise rock to throw ten monstrous slices our way.
More than half of the album’s tracks don’t clock in above the three-minute mark and none of them beg for more. Yet the ones which do clock in with lengthier times aren’t penalised for sticking out like a sore thumb. It’s a fast and furious record demanding your attention as soon as you hit “play”. There’s blood-curdling screams from Neil on opener and lead single “Harvest”, reminiscent of early Biffy but once his cleans come in, you hear that Scottish accent in his vocals and you just know it’s him. Meanwhile, there’s death growls galore on the following number, “Blusher”, making you think that maybe he missed his calling fronting a death metal band.
“Sons and Daughters” is one of the album’s lengthier songs, blending sludgy riffs with dissonance. It’s a tactic revisited on closer “The Looming” as it builds to a momentous crescendo. The latter acts as song which encapsulates the whole album as the band throw everything in their arsenal at it into one six-minute final assault. Meanwhile, the former allows you to get comfortable before “Stutter”, one of the most intense songs on the album. The riff grabs you by the scruff of the neck whilst managing to keep up with the visceral drums and is one of Lombardo’s many highlights on an album full of them. Here, though, he’s got a less-is-more approach, winding around the blend of punk and metal in the riff and the pair of them make something which could have come from the hey-day of thrash, albeit with better production value.
Meanwhile, “Moi” and “Dusty” are slow burners, consisting of dark, brooding openers before the individually explode into life. Where “Moi” feels oppressive even in its tamer moments, it turns full-on disgusting, the chugging riff sounds like it’s straight from a swamp against Neil anguish-filled screams and at one point becomes uncomfortable. “Dusty” on the other hand has a quiet anger and danger to it before it makes good on the promise. The guitar squeals, shoving the drums into the corner, the frustration pouring from Vennart.
Strangely, one of the most intense moments of the album comes in “Tired, Aye” where it’s the most bare bones track of the album. Comprised simply of vocals and Lombardo’s drums, it sounds like the pair are having a screaming match over something insignificant like who used the last of the milk. But neither of the pair let up in their assault, Lombardo beating his kit into submission, matching the screams of Neil.
Rarely does an album like this make good on its promise of the sum of its parts. But when you look at the personnel involved, it almost seems too big to fail. There’s simply not a weak track to be found and every listen throws up a new favourite and it’s always for a different reason. Neil uses a wealth of vocal techniques across the ten tracks, throwing out screams you’d hear regularly on Biffy’s older material or even some of their big hits. However, he knows how to dig as deep as possible into his register, hitting death growls you’d expect to hear at Bloodstock but it’s his manic screams which allows the music to shine brightest. It makes the album become the full-blooded noise rock it’s meant to be. Meanwhile, Vennart shows that he’s more than capable of taking front and centre on the six strings, pulling riffs out like a dodgy politician pulls out bad excuses. He’s managed to bring so many different elements to the table to give each song its own identity and focus on a different sub-genre yet keep it all corralled together. Everything is fuzzy, mired in filth and designed to be as loud as possible. On the rare moments which aren’t a sonic assault, the understated moments are just as powerful, intending on giving you a moment of respite but still subtly attack you.
And Dave Lombardo? Well, it’s Dave Lombardo. He simply doesn’t let up, going for the throat on all ten tracks, he’s not needed to give this album the credentials or kudos but does add something another drummer wouldn’t be able to. Indeed, it’s not the sort of stripped back yet full-on drums you’d typically hear on an album like this. Instead, this is Lombardo throwing everything at it with a monster-sized kit to deliver an equally monstrous contribution. It’s with him on the record that allows it to flirt with metal and create something which is truly heavy.
Empire State Bastard are a shot in the arm for the year. It’s a lot more dangerous and feral than what the main men are usually known for but by the time “Harvest” has finished, you know they’ve got the chops. Brimming with aggression, the rare sombre moments are welcome but just as dissonant as the filth. It’s an album that completely envelops you and when the final note fades out, the pressure on your chest reduces. And that’s what a good noise rock album should do.
Rivers of Heresy is released on 1st September