You really have to admire Thousand Year War for their tenacity. They’ve endured the tribulations that commonly befall a fledgling band and some that are probably unique to one that plies its trade in the media black hole that is Alaska. Hell, founder Hiram Lohr even took to the sea, tossing fate to the wind on one of those godforsaken commercial fishing ships to fund the band’s work. The product of all that persistence in the face of adversity is their appropriately titled debut LP, Defiance.
Thousand Year War really want to make epic Viking metal and they’ve got the basics down pat: heavy, bouncy rhythms and catchy folk melodies interspersed with blastbeats and shimmery tremolo (although they make clear on their Myspace page that their message is one of eco-political disillusionment and ire, rather than mythology and battlelore). Defiance straddles the line between the Black and Death metal varieties of the subgenre in an attempt to fashion something unique – some blackened thrash here, a little melodeath there – but instead manages to double its debt to established acts in those domains. The album’s title track and its successor, “The Sea,” are Amon Amarth to the core, whereas “Open Casket” and “Spartacus,” among others, pull from outside that basic formula with heavy doses of Skeletonwitch and Immortal. And even in several places in which a direct influence may be difficult to pin down (Dark Tranquility? Insomnium?), there remains the inescapable sense that it’s been done before. “No Gods No Masters” is one of these for me and, although it exudes freshness within the context of its surrounding songs, I’m sure somebody will hear its anthemic, thrash-punk vibe and immediately guess its source material.
The potential outcomes of aping another band’s sound (or several at a time) number at least two. On the one hand, you make songs that have a higher chance of hitting the mark with listeners, even if they instantly bring to mind a band that is not yours. This is common and can be desirable when well-executed. Thousand Year War take full advantage of this loophole with a couple of songs that are enjoyable for all the elements crafted by those who came before them. Despite its derived sound, “Open Casket” is an infectious headbanger that rips along with formidable fury. On the other hand, and by extension, it invites direct comparison with that band to which it can be awfully hard to measure up; that is, now there’s the sense that it’s been done before and better. For example, one of Amon Amarth’s many strong suits is the simple yet elegant lead guitar melody and, in this regard, Defiance simply does not pass muster. The lead on the title track, for example, draws from the appropriate blueprint but is just plain listless by comparison. And, perhaps the epitome of the conundrum here, the band’s too-soon cover of I’s “Storm I Ride” is feeble in its grasp at the original’s naturally understated vivacity.
Thousand Year War deserve props for their enthusiasm and some more for their strength to gut out the bullshit that crumbles bands with less fortitude. But they also deserve honesty about what they’ve created, which is a middling amalgam of barely recast Viking/Death/Black metal that occasionally glimmers but never quite shines. Ambrose Bierce called perseverance “a lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success.” I won’t be nearly so acerbic, but I’m afraid that the best I can say of the efforts of Thousand Year War thus far is that they’ve succeeded in sounding a lot like some other really good bands.