Saviours is one of those sneaky bands that you might not be sure if you’re supposed to like or not. Of course, if the music speaks to you, then let it speak, but this Californian quartet shuffles about in that not-quite-thrash, not-quite-doom, not-quite sludge territory where the irony or sincerity of delivery often becomes the most important yardstick. Despite my somewhat limited previous exposure to the band, fourth album Death’s Procession has thickened up the production and retro-doomed things down quite a bit, both of which generally redound to Saviours’ benefit, and while the band is not entirely unlike a cross between the thick-as-tar heroics of High On Fire and the smooth-as-‘70s-silk shenanigans of The Sword, Saviours has neither the thunderous power of the former nor the compositional deftness that the latter finally attained on Warp Riders, meaning that Death’s Procession is tantalizingly close to a very good thing.
It’s pretty typical to complain that an instrumental album suffers from the lack of vocals, but slightly less commonplace (and plenty more dickish) to complain that a non-instrumental band would be better off without a vocalist, yet that’s exactly where we’re at when trying to reckon with Saviours’ frequently excellent but just as often frustrating brew. The weird thing, too, is that they don’t need to axe the singer because he’s bad – sure, the vocals are a pretty flat and basically one-dimensional booze yowl, but they’re not so terrible that they need to be cut altogether. The real problem is that the songs are both too much and not enough song-like, if that makes sense. Take “To the Grave Possessed”: it’s clearly structured like a traditional pop song, with verses that trade predictably with a chorus, then a bridge and a solo break, but because the chorus never commits particularly hard to actually being a chorus, the whole thing ends up playing, at least to these ears, like a somewhat meandering and undifferentiated prologue to an excellent guitar solo and then some Lizzy-ish dual guitar wheeling. All of which is perfectly fine, except that if that’s going to be the sole highlight of the song, why not just cut the extraneous ‘song’ shit and just be some kind of metal jam band?
The potential wisdom of this suggestion is borne out by the fact that the band is clearly at its best when the rhythm dudes lay down a thick track and let the guitarists just bust loose; watch the end of “Earthen Dagger” for guitar leads flying faster than cookies from a Girl Scout kiosk set up at a convention for balding and generously-paunched gym teachers. The album’s second half has much more of a shimmying rock and roll attitude, leavening the mostly beard-stroking blend of sludgy thrash and sweet stoner grooves with some punk-as-fuck grinning. However, one has to sort of scratch the ol’ head at the curious decision to sequence two of the most Motörheady songs immediately back to back (“Crete’n” and “God’s End”) while the first half of the record is devoted to more loping bruisers that all share the same basic structure. Still, although “Crete’n” does gallop into view with pure “Ace of Spades” attitude, it gets much more interesting around its mid-song solo break. And here’s where much of the initial frustration starts to melt away: pay attention to how the band lets its guitarists shed solos like bad-ass snake skins without neglecting to kick real rhythmic ass at the same time.
This, after all, is the lesson most frequently overlooked from the best of thrash’s mid-80s heyday: rippin’ solos are awesome, but kindly step to the back of the line if you haven’t also given the rest of the band something interesting to do. More to the point, when Saviours is at its best, you can tell that the band has built the song from a bitching rhythm guitar track first, and then adorned it with solos. If you try to do it the other way around, more often than not you’ll end up with finger-licking solos that too easily limp along above a wet-behind-the-ears rhythm section just tapping out some stupid chord changes; the bassist literally dies of boredom from measure upon measure of single-tone eighth-note tedium. Truly masterful guitar splendor needs a more intricate rhythmic and melodic base from which to improvise, and when the Saviours dudes nail this, the mind swoons at the possibility that they might be able to clean up all that other bullshit and knock out a full album’s worth of getting down to business.
The sort-of title track “Earth’s Possession & Death’s Procession” is a multifaceted instrumental tune of such great pacing and variety that it seems to pay homage to the finest Metallica tradition (“The Call of Ktulu,” “Orion,” etc.). Saviours doesn’t sound a thing like Metallica, and this song is probably half as good as those classics, but the spirit and function of the instrumental is the same. Final track “Walk to the Light” isn’t exactly a “Dyer’s Eve” or “Damage, Inc.,” either, but it does waltz the album to a close with a strong dose of ass-walloping guitar and grimy attitude. Ultimately, Death’s Procession is a tale of a band working at cross-purposes with itself. In terms of pure, sun-is-shining air guitar nirvana, this album is almost on a par with the latest Serpent Throne ripper, but the weak vocals consistently underscore the half-heartedly written ‘songiness’ of the whole affair, leaving the listener in the position of either hollering at the band to grow some fucking balls and write a “Frost Hammer” already, or easing up on the already somewhat forced-sounding metal aspects and drift off into a fully instrumental, pot hazy ‘70s reverie. But do it quick, guys: nature abhors indecision just as much as it does a vacuum.
Oh, and dudes: you’re from fucking Oakland, not Newcastle upon Tyne – ditch the cutesy spelling.