Sometimes you find the thing you seek in the place you least expect it. Imagine my surprise in finding a way to scratch my ever-present Mercyful Fate itch with a doom metal album, namely The Ritualist, the second album from North Carolina duo Hour of 13. There are moments on this album when guitarist/bassist/drummer Craig Davis so captures the spirit of Shermann and Denner’s playing that I can almost hear the King singing, and song titles such as “Evil Inside” “Soldiers of Satan” and “Demons All Around Me” suggest a thematic kinship as well. The Ritualist is a doom album first and foremost, as evidenced by the album’s slow pacing, mournful vocals and sinister atmosphere, but Davis’s injection of traditional and NWOBHM styled riffing into the band’s music helps distinguish Hour of 13 from the many doom bands chained to the Black Sabbath template.
Plodding tracks such as “Possession” and “The Ritualist” do not stray very far from the traditional doom blueprint, being based primarily around simple, meaty riffs. Yet even on these tracks, Davis weaves in subtle bits of melody in the form of shimmering arpeggios and harmonized lines. The band gets more of a bounce in its step with “Naked Star”, the stab and chug of which brings to mind the sharper Eighties sounds of bands like Judas Priest and Accept. It’s on “Demons All Around Me” that Hour of 13 most resembles Mercyful Fate: that multi-sectioned composition features a grinding, pedal-toned main riff much like “Curse of the Pharaohs”, and a stomping breakdown reminiscent of “Doomed by the Living Dead”. The album’s crown jewel is the nearly nine-minute closer “Crawlspace” wherein the band shifts back and forth from galloping Maiden-styled metal to loping doom in the vein of Trouble and Candlemass.
Vocalist Philip Swanson’s limited range and power render his performance one-dimensional, but like so many great doom vocalists, such as Ozzy, Bobby Liebling, and Scott Reagers, what Swanson lacks in technical ability he makes up for with a certain indefinable character. It does not hurt that Swanson is also a fair hand at crafting a memorable chorus.
Modern technology has made being a one-man band far easier than it used to be, but technology is still no replacement for talent, and Craig Davis’s performance shows he has plenty. The Ritualist sounds very much like the work of a real band playing real instruments, with a warm organic sound, seemingly unblemished by synthetic gadgetry. Whatever shortcomings there may be in Davis’s performance on bass or drums (and none leap to mind), they are more than overshadowed by his seamless axe-work.
The Ritualist was my first experience with Hour of 13, but it certainly will not be my last. The band’s blend of classic metal and classic doom would seem to position it for a fairly broad appeal, but fans of bands like Pagan Altar and Argus, specifically, should make it a point to give The Ritualist a listen.