originally written by Jim Brandon
It begins with the sounds of whips slicing through air and striking raw flesh, followed by gasps of pain. Chains bind arms, hands are nailed in place and Glen Benton asks “Where Is Your God Now”, as hell ensues with the ripping title-track. Approximately three-and-a-half years in the making, Vital Remains unleash what the band claims to be their Reign In Blood album, Icons Of Evil. While the admirable confidence Tony Lazaro and Dave Suzuki have shown in recent interviews would lead one to believe this disc is something transcendental from the perspective of the bands’ previous accomplishments, Icons… sounds more like a direct continuation of Dechristianize, rather than an advancement from an already excellent back-catalog.
Having Erik Rutan produce this 67+ minute beast was probably the best decision the band has made in their entire career, for Icons Of Evil finally brings forth an overall sound that fully complements every aspect of Vital Remains. The thin snare sound is now corrected and has been given a thick, lifelike sound that contrasts well against the razor-sharp tones of the rhythm guitars. Truly, this album represents the band at their most progressive while using their trademark aggression strategically in order to add many different hues and moods without deviating too far from their blasphemous, anti-christian path. “Scorned” is a richly textured track that uses blasts meticulously along with lumbering Morbid Angel-inspired slower segues where almost no rapid double-bass drumming is implemented at all, successfully adding to the rise-and-fall aesthetic on display, harkening back to the Dawn of The Apocalypse days, albeit only briefly.
Glen Benton faced a few obstacles while recording this album, but you’d never be able to tell by his performance, as his tone is just as guttural and inaccessible as it was on Deicide’s The Stench Of Redemption, while showing an individuality that is pure Vital Remains. In fact, the whole band is at the very top of their game, with Lazaro showing off mature melodies and interesting harmonic embellishments while also laying down some of the most punishing rhythm tracks the group has ever recorded on “Reborn…The Upheaval Of Nihility”, and “Shrapnel Imbedded Flesh”. Dave Suzuki is one of the most overlooked lead guitarists in the extreme field today, throwing down both technically astonishing precision solos along with some wildly frantic, chaotic passages resembling the molten eruption of an active volcano. The reining-in of speed gives way to more introspective drumming, adding touches of jazz to help break up the murderous blast beats, the relatively slower yet still uptempo parts of “In Infamy” show a very fresh side of the group.
This is where things get tricky. The band still seems to be firmly locked into the songwriting style of the album that came before this, and for the first time ever, Vital Remains haven’t broken new ground for themselves. It’s been known from the very start that this is not a quick-fix band who concentrate on catchiness and easy riffs to make their mark. Everything is epically structured and obsessively arranged, nothing is rushed or phoned in, but there also is no surprise factor. Most of the songs tend to go through a couple verses, a sub-chorus, a very long bridge with frequent solos, and where other bands would end the song, instead VR elaborately repeats it. The reason this doesn’t become wearing is simply because these guys know how to write damn good death metal, but to be honest, there were a few times where I lost my concentration on the music and my attention drifted off, like during the beginning and towards the middle of “‘Till Death”. There could have been some editing without sacrificing the epic feel of this album, but still, for being over an hour long this isn’t an album that drags, however the inclusion of Yngwie Malmsteen’s “Disciples Of Hell” was completely unnecessary, and sounds odd when performed in death metal style.
So is this the best Vital Remains album yet? In my estimation, no, it isn’t, but this is also a band that I will firmly state has never, ever written anything remotely close to a bad record. While earlier discs showed change through each different recording, this one sounds like they’ve found a groove they wish to stick with, and expand on it only sparingly. In comparison to the brilliant Dechristianize, Icons Of Evil is a sturdy lateral move that will probably prove to be Vital Remains’ most commercially successful effort to date, based on good timing. As a fan, I’m one-hundred percent appreciative of this monstrous death metal tour de force, but as a critic, I have to call it down the middle. Still, I don’t see how any admirer of these guys will be let down by such an awesome display of power and skill.