Ye come seekin’ adventure and salty ol’ pirates, eh? Sure ye come to the proper place. But keep a weather ear open, mates, and hold on tight…there be squalls ahead, and plundering pirates lurking in every cove, waitin’ to board. Mark well me words, mateys…dead men tell no tales!
Thank you, creepy talking skull.
Though Alestorm and Swashbuckle first set sail around the same time in 2006 (the former with a self-titled EP when they were known as Battleheart; the latter with the full-length Crewed by the Damned), they have not really crossed paths since, just barely missing each other in 2009. Now with both well-weathered by years of adventure on the open seas, they find themselves prepared to do battle for the ultimate prize – your hard-earned dubloons.
On one side, Scotland’s bacon-powered pirate crew and their fourth album Sunset on the Golden Age; on the other, New Jersey’s dudes with pirate ‘tudes with their We Hate the Sea EP.
The first shot has been fired…and it looks to be from a goblin, of all creatures. So WHICH metal band truly rules the seas? Observing the action from a safe distance is a couple of our resident scurvy dogs, Dave Pirtle and Matt Longo. Let’s listen in…
M: Rum spicy.
D: FAMOUS OL’ SPICED! Damn, I didn’t even see that coming.
M: RUM IS THE KEY!
The unfortunate thing about all those first few Alestorm releases was that Napalm sent those bloody promos with that douche piping in every 30 seconds, reminding you who/what you were listening to and trying to prevent… ahem… piracy.
D: I remember that for one of them, but eventually I just plundered a proper version without said piping.
This album is just missing whatever it is that made the first three albums so great. “Walk the Plank” is a strong opener. In the past their opening tracks have been a bit plodding and underwhelming, as if they’re just starting to get a feel for how the winds are blowing; here it’s full sails ahead from the onset.
Then we get to the obligatory drinking song, simply entitled “Drink”, which lacks the panache of past efforts. “We are here / to drink your beer” is a bit too college jock for me, though the follow up “and steal your rum / at the point of a gun” is pure piracy. It just comes off as a bit hackneyed and forced, almost like they’re pandering to the audience.
M: To underscore your point, I think it’s funny that these first two tracks are so similarly named to tunes on Swashbuckle’s debut. The latter’s “Walk the Plank” was an early favorite of mine (“HIGH FIVES! PLANK DIVES!”) back in 2006, but I like where Alestorm went with it …except the whole “hammerhead” bit. I know it’s feigned authenticity here, but can we at least aim for the correct fucking sharks? I doubt they’d be sailing in Polynesia. Dorky keyboard warrior point aside, I’m on the fence—or, I dunno, mizzen mast—about which band’s tune I dig more; both are quite strong.
D: What are you, some sort of marine biologist? Or have you just always wanted to pretend to be one? If so, I’ve got some Titleists here for you.
M: Well if it’s inefficient whale killing that you’re after, we should probably get in touch with Japan. No no no, let’s refocus. And hey, I think “Drink” really works, all told. It strikes me less as “college jock” and more “Paganfest Tour”…imagine the real audience they’re shooting for here. Whether or not it’s a bit contrived? Yeah, it’s goofy fun, but that’s the idea.
D: On the other hand, Alestorm’s ventures into pirate lore are always entertaining, and “1741 (The Battle of Cartagena)” is no exception.
M: Totally with you here, and I really wish they’d plumb these depths more often. Dredging up the past and taking the occasional serious stance helps mitigate the gimmicky nature of the genre.
D: They seem to get the most out of out of the orchestral arrangements in these instances, too, adding great dramatic effect without getting too…Dimmu Borgir-y.
M: Yeah, who else but Nile works in the grandiose synth hits that aren’t cringe-inducing? It’s a delicate art. On the other end of the spectrum, “Wooden Leg” is stripped back and pretty awesome. Plus, did you catch that one line where they actually threw in “wooden arm”? I guess that could answer my previous question about sailing Pacific waters, since a “samurai guy with ninja skills” relieves the protagonist of his upper appendages. Oh… um, spoiler alert?
D: DAMNIT MAN DON’T GIVE AWAY THE ENDING! I mean, uhh, no worries. He got it in a tavern from a gnarly old dude, so how well could this story possibly end? At first sight, the track appears to be destined for awful—it’s way too obvious of a reference. But it ends up being pure gold.
M: I thought “Surf Squid Warfare” was a sweet mid-album break—good to vary the pace, and if there’s any other appropriate genre to enter into the mix, it’s surf rock.
D: No real complaints from me on that one. Sea creatures, and squids specifically, are as much a part of Alestorm’s crew as anything. This is at least as over-the-top conceptually as “Deaththroes of the Terrorsquid”.
As for the cover song (they always have at least one)…I’d almost rather not talk about it. I’ve never heard the original of Taio Cruz‘s “Hangover”, and after this, I never want to. Alestorm whips out their entire musical arsenal to remake the paean to drinking, but even that can’t disguise what is just a plain bad song. It’s saying something that their version of “In The Navy” completely blows it away, because there is nothing good about the Village People.
M: Why they chose to reinterpret “Hangover” is a mystery to these ears as well. Alestorm more or less make it their own and whatnot, but once you know that the epic 11:26 title track is just on the horizon, it’s easy to cruise past the cover in favor of the closer.
D: Oh man, that that title track is a doozy. I can’t shake a feeling that they’re foreshadowing something with that—the end of Alestorm as we know it? I’m not sure I’m ready for that, especially with Running Wild slowly straying off-course, and the downward slope of Swashbuckle.
M: Speaking of which…what’s your take on the Swashbuckle EP?
D: For one, to paraphrase Chili Palmer: It’s too short. Which is a bit hypocritical of me to say because I thought Back to the Noose was overlong with too much filler; they could have cut a bunch of it out and made a stronger album. Now they’ve done that, in a sense, but it doesn’t seem like enough. Plus, it’s hard for me to recommend that folks go out and drop their dollars on a piece of music that only lasts 7 minutes. Musically, it lacks that pirate-y feel and sounds more like straight up thrash.
M: And a deathy thrash at that. Their shit was always pretty raw, but to paraphrase Stan from Office Space: It lacks flair. Really barebones, no solos, that kinda thing. I can accept that, but it’s not something I will seek out again soon.
D: People came to Swashbuckle for the atmosphere and the attitude…and both are lacking here.
It seems that Nuclear Blast got hornswoggled when they had to give this band a contract after they won a MySpace contest. After just two albums and an apparent exposure of their lack of staying power and limitations of their gimmick, they were rightly keelhauled. Now a living batch of flotsam doomed to a life at sea, clinging to passing vessels until they ultimately convene with Davey Jones at his locker.
M: So did Swashbuckle actually win a MYSPACE contest? Is there anything more hopelessly dated than that?
D: Sure did. That oughta teach labels to put their futures in the hands of the Internet.
M: Okay, after reading that again, I now vaguely recall the shared “victory” of Swashbuckle, Blackguard, and Augury. Wow, I don’t know about you, but this really brings me back to The Great Digital Promotion Shift of Aught-Nine™. I actually remember PRINTING OUT these one-sheets, and oddly enough, I recall Augury’s being uncharacteristically sparse; maybe NB wanted the music to speak for itself, since it’s actually pretty awesome. What happened to them anyway? We haven’t heard anything new since Fragmentary Evidence dropped in 2009, and the last “fresh” stuff promoted was when Sonic Unyon reissued Concealed back in early 2011.
Weird how everything played out. Over five years, the band I’d consider the most talented—Augury—put out the least material; Blackguard jumped ship and is now [somewhat inexplicably] on Victory; and Swashbuckle has surprisingly been the most prolific. Although their release schedule was kind of uneven: Back to the Noose and Crime Always Pays dropped just over a year apart, and then it took 4 years to get the 4 songs that comprise their recent We Hate the Sea EP.
(Sidebar—I don’t know who wrote that Nuclear Blast press release, but it reminds me of this.)
Oh, wait—I just remembered Swashbuckle isn’t on Nuclear Blast anymore, and the new EP is on Get This Right Records. So was the band unceremoniously dropped, or did they fulfill their obligation to the label?
D: I’m going with the latter. Crime Always Pays got some decent pre-release hype if I recall correctly, but ended up being pretty much D.O.A. upon release. I don’t think I even heard it until two years later because it had fallen completely off radar. Now that you mention it, four years to produce 7 minutes of new material does not speak well for the creative process. That’s Chinese Democracy level stuff right there.
M: True, but better to leave ‘em wanting more than overstay your welcome, yeah? And We Hate the Sea is a decent comeback for these Jersey sea devils. If it were up to me (and it totally fucking isn’t), I’d tell the trio to either toss in an extra catchy riff or two—or better still, a briny new shanty to liven the spirits.
D: To be fair, “Beer Goggles” is pretty damn good. Sounds like they added some synth lines for texture/effect. Could be an interesting new direction if they choose to expand on it. The rest of it is pretty much by-the-book, though. Solid, but a bit unspectacular.
So who wins the day here?
D: I have to give the edge to Alestorm. Historically they’ve been my favorite of the two, and despite my lukewarm feelings about Sunset on the Golden Age, its undeniably Alestorm and an enjoyable listen. My least favorite album of theirs to date, for sure, but given how much I love those first three, that really isn’t a bad thing. To Swashbuckle: head back to Tortuga, regroup, and I’ll see you when you set sail once again. There are great musical depths yet to be plundered.
M: Yeah, I think we both disagree with Nekrogoblikon—although Alestorm wins the day on a decent full-length that needed more spit and polish, Swashbuckle still impresses with their grimy little EP, in all its trigger-happy glory.
I dig dynamics, and do wanna hear more shanties and whatnot, but am not gonna impose myself. Who can begin to understand why these dudes dress up in faux-pirate getup any more than one could explain why their current tourmates in Nekrogoblikon employ a guy in goblin garb?
Don’t get me wrong—I happen to be reading “Treasure Island” right now, and understand that most of our present ideas about pirates stem from that novel; “accuracy” is tenuous at best, and Swashbuckle are having fun above all else. (Check out their YouTube channel for further proof.) But whatever the twist in the metal, it feels like there should be a little something extra, and the costumes just strike as kitsch. Bands like Cauldron Black Ram have discovered deadlier blends as of late, and Swashbuckle’s hating the sea could unfortunately mean wading in the shallows until they get their legs again. Alestorm, on the other hand, may have been on open water a bit too long, and lost focus when docking at any port in a storm. Still, they likewise keep me smiling, even as those dark clouds come rolling in.