Thorr-Axe
Gates of Winter

Bloomington, Indiana’s hypothermic quartet Thorr-Axe makes a helluva racket on their second LP, Gates of Winter.  Self-described as “blackened-doom” I’m not about to argue with them and set myself up for some Viking justice.  The grinding rhythms grease their gears with sludgy grooves, knee-deep trudges and begotten abandon while the tonality of the riffage, agoraphobic speed bursts and frenzied percussion of drummer Jacob Lett (vaulting from double-bass to blasts before you can even drop a dime) is certainly a prime slice of Icelandic permafrost.  There’s a raw knuckle conviction to the way the vibe shifts from track to track; the songwriting set to pillage and burn, but a couple of weak spots in the hull bring the score down by a sword inch or two.

“Open the Gates” is the requisite, instrumental tone setter as exemplified via the howls of icy wind that kick it off.  The drumming keeps the riff-crew rowing thanks to dramatic cymbal crashes and heavily entrenched tom-artillery turning to warring double-kick runs.  I’m picking up a Dissection influence in the frosted, nether-bent doom riffs and craggy melodies of guitarists Tucker Thomasson and Mitchell McKinney…something about the tone and delivery recalls the Swedish masters.  It sets things up nicely for the first proper sojourn in “The Seer’s Vision.”  Doom-y depression alternates with feral, blasting carnage and striding, stuttered riffage.  Musically, it’s mostly solid though I’d like to hear the bass of Garret Daniels brought up in the mix, especially when the aggression tapers off.  His presence is a constant rumble that has a hard time breaking free from its chains for some real lowdown menace.  ¾ band members handle the vocal duties and in this song I feel they’re a weak point; everyone uniting for a hoarsecore shout-fest that almost penetrates the virginity of a scream, but not quite.  In my opinion the voices are straight outta Shai Hulud as opposed to black metal or doom.  Contrast is nice when it works…this isn’t quite working.  Musically though, these guys are tighter than a nun’s backdoor.

Barely clocking in at over 2 minutes, “Four Hooves” stomps like Matt Pike taking on Amon Amarth’s legions of the damned.  It works up a good locked in thrash, flailing its arms in a convulsion of over-the-top blackened chaos.  The breaks are rooted in riff-y sludge with just the slightest hint of a mid-tempo Slayer chug.  Death-y growls spice up the mix nicely, though those haggard yells continue to detract a couple of heads from the overall body count.  “Mountain Crusher” lives up to its name with a groove avalanche wrought from the summit of Sleep’s Holy Mountain as it tumbles into the fray and is thusly Surrounded by Thieves in terms of its malicious, stoner-thrash eruptions and mutated guitar tones.  The bass shines brighter on this one, the fury of the multiple vocal attacks trade-off nicely and the band really embraces their inner Iommi, Ward and Butler.  Not a weak note or misstep to be found here, and one of the album’s strongest tracks.

In fact I think these guys do a whole lot better whenever they over intoxicate themselves on doom and only nurse their black metal speed binges as evidenced by the unruly sludge riffs and yeti-killing blues rhythms during the lengthy intro of, “The Forging Ritual.”  The guitars pull back to an atonal drone when the vocals come screaming their way in, leaving the low-end a prime chance to slink across the tundra.  They briefly derail their caravan into a merciless thrash rampage yet slow their team into a deliberate doom-y trot for the finale.  This is another fuckin’ standout tune without question.  The title track is an only intermittently conscious dirge that was left to lay face down in an ether rag in subzero temperatures.  A musical crumble is induced where the piercing riffs teeter between thunderclap sludge and bewitched Norwegian madness; those vomiting low vocals again providing a very necessary counterpoint to the tense, scalding screams (they seem to finally shed that hardcore moan heard on the first few songs).  This happens to be one of the few songs with a noticeable lead/solo element in the form of a forlorn, languishing lick in the cut’s latter half combing pits of despair similar to a gem off of Storm of the Light’s Bane.

“Descent” and “Intermission” are throwaways; the first in the aforementioned series reckoning to a weaker version of the preceding title track without nearly as much atmosphere or compositional quality and “Intermission” drones away on a couple of boring, reverb-soaked chords and distant voices.  14+ minute closer, “Awakening” brings Thorr-Axe’s many qualities to the forefront, uncorking a potent, hallucinogenic sprawl that encompasses everything in the band’s arsenal that I’d recommend about their sound.  Doom is a focus but Dissection and very, very early Katatonia seem to bubble to the top of the vat.

Thorr-Axe have released a promising if somewhat inconsistent debut in Gates of Winter.  There’s nothing bad on this album, it’s just more of a case that when this band is good they’re REALLY good and when they’re not hitting the mark they are just going through the motions.  Honestly, the mid-album hog-sloppers like “Mountain Crusher” and “The Forging Ritual” when coupled to ball-freezers like the title track and “Awakening” make the album.  The rest is middling, but I can leave if it if the option is on the table, especially after digging into what the band is truly capable of.  Still, these guys are just getting started and they already show a wealth of potential.  You can bet your bippy that half of this record will be in my regular rotation.  Check ‘em out and see where you stand!

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jay S
February 10th, 2015

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