Germany’s Sacred Steel are, by all outward appearances, stalwarts of the modern power metal scene, boasting a career that spans more than a decade and a half, during which time they’ve put out eight full-length albums including this one. For all that output however, they seem to have made little impression on the international power metal audience – I’ve only recently heard of them, and then only on account of the fact that The Bloodshed Summoning is their first release on Italy’s Cruz Del Sur Music, one of the few metal labels whose roster I pay regular and close attention to thanks to their unimpeachable track record. I’m inclined to defer by default to Cruz Del Sur’s taste in old-fashioned heavy metal with a minimum of superficial flash or production gloss getting in the way of strong songs (I refer you to the output of Pharaoh, Twisted Tower Dire, Crescent Shield et al. for ample evidence of that), and Sacred Steel deliver that to an extent, but at the same time, I can understand why they’ve yet to stand out amid a legion of like-minded bands.
The opener “Storm of Fire 1916” leads the charge with a pair of peculiarly contrasting instances of déjà vu. The riff that begins is a terse, jagged and amelodic fire-spitter that’s vividly reminiscent not of anything in power metal at all, but the Teutonic thrash of Sacred Steel’s countrymen such as Kreator and Destruction. That vocalist Gerrit P. Mutz’s snarl is a virtual dead-ringer for that of Kreator’s Mille Petrozza in 21st century outings like “Violent Revolution” serves to complete a rather unnerving impersonation. Just as quickly though, Sacred Steel shift gears into the song’s chorus, when Mutz’s voice abruptly metamorphoses into a mournful baritone wail borrowed from Nevermore’s Warrel Dane. He regularly changes between the two vocal styles, often from one line to the next, cementing the album’s identity as a combination of the speed and aggression of old-school speed metal in the vein of Liege Lord or Painkiller-era Judas Priest and the dour, steely seriousness of modern acts like Nevermore.
Sacred Steel do exhibit talent and professionalism in their construction and performance of songs, certainly. Guitarists Jens Sonnenberg and Jonas Khalil know their way around classic speed metal riffage, demonstrating a number of fine examples of a relentless, frantic root-note chug (“No God/No Religion”; “Under the Banner of Blasphemy”) and some lovely dual-harmonised leads (“The Night they Came to Kill” and my personal favourite of the record, “When the Siren Calls”). The songs are efficiently constructed, maintaining the momentum created from all the aggressive riffing through the abundant chorus hooks and manic solos without flagging. The production, too, is superb, the guitars explosive and expertly balanced, Kai Schindelar’s bass meaty and easily audible and drummer Mathias Straub’s formidable double-bass attack appropriately concussive.
Seems like it should be just up my alley, but for all that it does right, I found The Bloodshed Summoning lacking in the exhilaration and sense of empowerment that ought to be a quintessential part of its genre. I’ve compared Sacred Steel to Nevermore, but here’s the thing: I don’t care for Nevermore very much. I’ve always found their glum, dolorous take on power metal to be fundamentally at odds with a sound that is, at its heart, a call to action. Power metal doesn’t necessarily have to be “happy,” as such – there are plenty of good power metal tracks that are angry and aggressive – but its melodic architecture and hook-driven intensity mean that it is ideally suited to be rousing and incisive. Accordingly, bands who try to introduce a despondent or hopeless worldview are fundamentally working against the grain, usually out of a misguided desire to be more dark or extreme than the genre norm. Sacred Steel bill themselves on their Facebook page as Germany’s most extreme power metal band, and just like that, I understand why this record doesn’t quite work.
By pushing power metal right up to the boundary of the nastier, more antagonistic genre of thrash, Sacred Steel lose more than they gain by trading the impassioned charisma of the former for the added grit and fury of the latter. Where a band like Liege Lord would have soared with anthemic, fist-pumping choruses, Sacred Steel plod in a misanthropic rut, Mutz’s melancholic wails suggesting a grey, bleak reality with little hope for improvement. Not to say this aesthetic isn’t worth exploring, but the songs’ architecture remains that of power metal, which leaves The Bloodshed Summoning feeling internally conflicted. It has energy and roiling, raging energy to spare, but it feels misdirected, achieving neither the inspirational quality of power metal nor the overpowering savagery of thrash.
I don’t want to denigrate what Sacred Steel accomplish on The Bloodshed Summoning more than is warranted. When all is said and done, these guys do know how to play and have put together an entirely competent, fundamentally palatable record. Good power metal, though, is something you feel in your gut. I can listen to a song by Gamma Ray or Jag Panzer or Stormwarrior and feel like every cell in my body is incandescent with energy, a need to sing along at the top of my lungs lest I explode. I don’t get that from any of the tracks on The Bloodshed Summoning. Sacred Steel have all of the requisite ingredients and the skill to cook them up effectively, but the flavour I crave is absent. I can only conclude that they were working from a faulty recipe.
01) Storm of Fire 1916
02) No God/No Religion
03) When the Siren Calls
04) The Darkness of Angels
05) The Bloodshed Summoning
06) Under the Banner of Blasphemy
07) Black Towers
08) Crypts of the Fallen
09) The Night They Came to Kill
10) Join the Congregation
11) Journey into Purgatory
12) Doomed to Eternal Hell
13) Perversions of the Scriptures
14) Unbinding the Chains
15) Dig Up Her Bones (Misfits cover)