You’ve felt something in the air lately, too, right? A relapse into old habits. The easy comfort of settling down in a worn couch groove. New bands, old sounds – that’s the thing. One hundred tiny elfin cobblers summoning magical footgear while no one’s looking. But since no one’s looking, maybe the shoes don’t fit, and the elves are basically just bored and should know better.
Shouldn’t we all know better?
Here’s the proposition: Retro metal is bullshit. Shouldn’t be a thing. Move forward or sideways or even not much at all, but backward? Hell no. But that’s not so much a neutral proposition as an intensely value-laden judgment. Posing the question already tilts the scales. So, instead, that proposition is my foil. I don’t think it holds up, or at least not always. We’re all both more and less than we think. To say that retro metal (or retro anything, I’d wager) can never satisfy or measure up is to impart an undue purity to the past. Imitation doesn’t simply work on a backward-glancing time scale; it’s a mushroom colony at any given point in time – bands can’t help but drink in what surrounds them, what inspires them, what terrifies them because it’s just too damn good. So, to accuse a current band of being no good because it looks primarily to the past for its playbook is to assume that each of those ‘classic’ bands from the halcyon days existed as some hermetically-sealed entity, a self-contained biosphere that nourished and nurtured only its own fragile, unique development.
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Art steals from art, so let’s not tell ourselves too many fanciful stories about it.
Meandering prologue aside: Into this confounding breach steps Enforcer. Four young Swedes with serious hard-ons for the slickest and speediest sounds of the ‘80s. This much is undeniable. But simple facts quickly give way to incessant opinionating on the basis of a few terrible, reckless words – words that really ought to be capitalized given how much they send all us over-thinking types into a tizzy of think-pieces and brow-furrowing and general no-fun-having. Y’see, Enforcer is one of those bands that gets critic types and the average metalhead alike all ball-twisted and panty-stuffed over words like Irony and Authenticity.
I don’t want to do that thing. I don’t want to play that game here. Or, at least not very much. Let’s levy an initial judgment on Enforcer’s third album – and best by a reasonable margin – Death By Fire. Enforcer plays fast – sometimes just regular fast, and sometimes really fast, and then some other times slow in a way that makes clear they can’t wait to start playing fast again – and plays lots of guitar solos and whips out lots of harmonized guitar leads and lots of high-pitched screaming and super-catchy choruses and false stops with full-band instrument-mashing codas. But Enforcer does these things not because it’s hip, or retro, or ironic, or the done thing. Death By Fire really, truthfully sounds like Enforcer does these things because these things are fucking awesome.
Olof Wikstrand’s vocals are pretty much a dead ringer for Davey Havok of AFI. That’s no bad thing in my book, but even if the comparison automatically raises your hackles, peep his ridiculous opening scream on “Sacrificed.” Or really, more importantly, come back and talk to me when you’ve gone about a full week without being able to get the chorus hooks to “Mesmerized by Fire” and “Take Me Out of this Nightmare” out of your head. Soft songs don’t do that. Bassist Tobias Lindqvist sounds like he loves Steve Harris even more than you and I love Steve Harris, so watch out in particular when he leads off the exceptionally Killers-ish instrumental jam “Crystal Suite.” So of course, you’re going to hear plenty of Iron Maiden on this album. Judas Priest, too, and not a small bit of Metallica (circa ‘82/’83, natch), and all the rest of the old gang. These Swedes have chewed all that old stuff up, but slowly, and with great relish.
Just listen to late-album highlight “Silent Hour / The Conjugation.” And even more importantly, look at the solo attribution in the booklet toward the end of the song: “J-O/J-O/J-J-J-O-J.” That’s ‘J’ for Joseph Tholl and ‘O’ for Olof Wikstrand, Enforcer’s guitarists, and yeah, that means they’re trading off solo licks like mad. Because you know what? If I could play guitar like that (or at all, really), you can bet your ass I’d want to write songs that gave me room to jam out a bunch of solos in friendly competition with my pals, the kind of competition that’s superficially breezy and light-hearted, but deep in every woman’s and man’s heart summons wild energies and self-regarding passions.
And all of this is around the same time the band has slowed down, seemingly as much as it is able to, but the tempo creeps back up, and while I know the accelerando has to have been a thing they plotted out and planned for in studio, it still just sounds like these dudes are so overjoyed to get where they know they’re going that they can’t help but speed up. “Dudes! Remember this next part? It’s so sweet, let’s go there NOW!” And then, despite the fact that the song closes out sounding for all the world like a perfect conclusion to a great album, Enforcer busts back in with an absolute rager of an album closer in “Satan.” It can’t help but remind me of Metallica’s feral teenage bloodlust early on, in the way the band sprang from “The Four Horsemen” into “Motorbreath,” or from “Seek & Destroy” into “Metal Militia.”
But that really circles us back to the original point. There’s a fairly easy argument that detractors of Enforcer (or any other similarly throwback-minded bands) can make: Why bother with music like this today? We’ve already got Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and Scorpions and Angel Witch and Tokyo Blade and Diamond Head and on and on. Why should I listen to Death By Fire when I could go listen to Stained Class or Killers or Lightning to the Nations? And, to be honest, that’s a powerful argument. Music as shamelessly (and perhaps even gleefully) derivative as Enforcer has got an enormously high bar to pass, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no. While other bands of Enforcer’s ilk come off worse for the comparison to the original NWOBHM acts they’re emulating, their music never feels like it invites the comparison. It’s as if their albums – I’m thinking in particular of two 2013 albums, Holy Grail’s Ride the Void and Cauldron’s Tomorrow’s Lost – are trying to say, “Hey everyone, we know this sorta sounds like stuff you’ve heard, but it’s not! We’re our own thing with something new to say!”
Not so with Enforcer. Here’s the real secret to why Enforcer is a fantastic band, and why Death By Fire is sure to be one of my favorite albums of the year come December: Enforcer invites the comparison. This band sounds so hot, so alive, so amped up and mega-jazzed with what they’re doing, that the listener gets the sense that Enforcer is intentionally positioning itself against those classics. These Swedes are throwing down a gauntlet to the skeptical headbanger: “Go on, stack us up against Killers. Stack us up against Stained Class. Stack us up against Tygers of Pan Tang’s Spellbound. WE CAN TAKE IT.” And the funny thing is, they’re right. Death By Fire is so red hot, so feisty, and so utterly guileless that one can imagine stacking this 2013 offering up against some of the greats of 1983. And sure, maybe ultimately Enforcer will lose it, but it ain’t going to be a blowout. These cats know their competition, and they’re hungry for it.
Ultimately, I think that’s what separates the ‘retro style as fetishism’ bands from the ‘retro style as what we were made to do’ bands: the former try to remind you of a previous conversation, and maybe make you nostalgic for it; the latter are goddamn and fucking shit-yes hell-bent on forcibly making themselves part of that original conversation. Enforcer says to the Heavy Metal Canon: “This isn’t settled yet. Even names carved in stone can be rewritten. Don’t close your book until we’ve read our lines.”
It’s a powerful rebuttal, and these guys are clearly having the time of their life arguing their case. Get over your stupid hangups and get in on the conversation. The future’s version of the past isn’t settled yet. Isn’t that a thrilling proposition?