Heathen
Empire of the Blind

Hey, listen, far be it from me to criticize or question a band’s creative process. Artists are artists! Some bands can pump out new material every couple of years and avoid having it feel stale or overdone, and good for them! But others like to let things marinate, I mean really stew for years to let concepts and ideas really flesh out to ripened perfection. Tool are probably the most famous example of taking irregularly long gaps of inactivity before reappearing out of whatever hole they were hiding in and making everyone go fucking apeshit for another year before dropping some bullshit that sounds suspiciously like pretty much everything else they’ve ever done.

Ah geez, is that a little harsh?

… Nah fuck it.  

Anyway, the point is a band like Tool often gets criticized for their lack of material – 5 albums in 26 years to be exact. But really, I think those speed freaks need to slow down! 5 albums in 26 years? That’s quite an extensive catalog. Try 5 albums in 33 years.  

Now THAT’S a lesson in taking one’s time, taught by Bay Area thrashers Heathen. While the band never quite reached the level of their local counterparts like Testament, Exodus or (obviously) Metallica, they’ve always been respected as a solid, technical example of the Bay Area sound. Lack of production aside, one thing I’ve always appreciated about the band is how they obviously used their down time to continue to grow as musicians, because each new release was a marked improvement on the last – culminating in 2010’s awesome The Evolution of Chaos. 10(!) years later, the band has returned and, once again, taken their game to another level.

I’ll put it this way; in a year that has produced some truly killer thrash – from Testament’s Titans of Creation, to Warbringer’s Weapon of Tomorrow and Havok’s V, I sure-as-shit did not expect a band like Heathen to come in and drop a viable candidate for the unofficial honor of Thrash Album of the Year, and yet… here we are! Empire of the Blind is superb – a prime example of a band who has obviously taken their time to hone their craft and deliver a confident, self-assured blend of both classic and modern thrash ideas, while boasting the band’s signature ability to create super catchy and memorable choruses and melodies that creep in and stay with you. After nice little table-setting intro, the band breaks in with a fireworks display of killer riffs and busy drumming on “The Blight,” a track that feel fresh and invigorated after a long slumber, with David White’s distinctive vocal stylings still mixing still mixing nicely with the band’s overall tone. A couple of impressive leads and solos pave the way for a strong reintroduction.

 

Title track “Empire of the Blind” really encapsulates everything this band has going for them – a super-catchy front end gives way to an absolute blitzkrieg pre-solo that would whip any crowd into a frenzy, before unleashing a friggin’ righteous solo/lead section that leaves no one questioning the quality of musicianship on display here. Similarly paced tracks like “Blood To Be Let” and “The Gods Divide” are absolute ragers that will leave your neck sore and your voice hoarse after screaming along to the raucous gang-vocals of the latter’s chorus.

The faster tracks are broken up nicely by a fewer slower, more plodding tracks like the fist-pumping “Dead and Gone” and “Sun In My Hand,” which boasts the albums mightiest, heaviest moments along with a chorus very reminiscent of a Stu Block-Iced Earth vibe. It’s one of the album’s more unique standout tracks, and really stands out as an album highlight. “In Black” again mixes all the best parts of this band’s repertoire, complete with a blistering bridge and solo that have me air-shredding and headbanging like a lunatic in the middle of my office without a shred of shame (okay so right now it’s a home office BUT YOU GET THE POINT).

My personal favorite, “Devour,” puts everything that makes this album successful on display to the Nth degree, also adding in some effective, creepy-as-all-hell Evangelical samples that immediately make me think of the cover of Death’s Spiritual Healing. While one of the albums shorter tracks, it uses its time effectively and hits all the right notes to leave a lasting impact. While I’m not usually a huge fan of instrumentals, “A Fine Red Mist” is a nice example of one done very well, allowing guitarists Lee Altus and Kragen Lum to really stretch out and flex their muscles. It’s not just a total noodle fest, though (much to the song’s benefit), as it features some of the albums most fun riffs and simple, effective leads that are just really well executed. When they do decide to open the taps though and just go nuts, the result is super impressive, at one point towards the end really making me think immediately of Jeff Loomis’ best work (when your work brings Jeff Loomis to mind, you’re doing something very right).

There’s a couple of chinks in the armor – all-out ballad “Shrine of Apathy” just doesn’t quite do it for me. The harmonized guitars on the tail end are nice but the rest just falls kinda flat and feels a bit out-of-place. I also don’t really know what the point of final track “Monument to Ruin” is. It’s not a bad little interlude, I just don’t know why it couldn’t have just faded into the end of “The Gods Divide.” As it is, it just makes for a somewhat awkward 37-second anticlimax to an album that deserves a much stronger ending, in my mind. But make no mistake, these do nothing to change my overall opinion of this album. This is a robust, world class display of thrash metal done really well, and pulled off with a flair that is unique to these guys. If you’re gonna wait 10 years to put out a new album, you might as well make it count – and Heathen has delivered in spades.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Steve K
October 7th, 2020

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