Release date: 8/19/2017. Label:Independently released. If the band’s name doesn’t give it away, Milwaukee’s Khazaddum play Tolkien themed death metal, or as the promo materials call it, “dwarven death metal.” Their first full-length album (following an EP in 2015), Plagues Upon Arda, comes to me at a fortuitous time, as I am coincidentally in the midst of my third run through Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings trilogy, and therefore well primed to be transported to Middle Earth through Khazaddum’s music.
Here’s the thing though, part 1: Middle Earth is a world of words, not just because it is a literary creation, but because Tolkien was a philologist; he studied language, and so every person place or thing in Middle Earth has at least three different names. I’m sure, dear reader, this is something you already know, but death metal isn’t the best genre when it comes to intelligible vocals. Sure, some death metal vocalists manage it, but Khazaddum’s Luka Djordjevic isn’t one of them. And so, the prospects for immersing oneself into Tolkien’s world through Khazaddum’s music are significantly dimmer than if the band played a more traditional style of metal.
Here’s the thing though, part 2: I am, perhaps to a fault, primarily focused on riffs. Sure it would be nice if these songs told a story I could follow, but if I really need to journey to middle earth, I’ll just read the damn books. What Khazaddum does give me is some fairly complex and rather ferocious death metal, and that is a joy that stands on its own.
Here’s the thing though, part 3: Khazaddum weaves more than a bit of keyboards and orchestration into its music, and generally speaking, I don’t go for that shit. You know that band Emperor? I don’t fucking like them. And so, Khazaddum has quite a hurdle in its path, but I’ll be damned if they don’t just hop right over that sucker. Khazaddum is fairly restrained in the way that they weave symphonic bits into its music; in the delicate dance between the atmospheric and the visceral, the orchestration never steps on brutality’s toe. When the keys sweep in, they matter; they are integral to the music, not shit frosting on an otherwise delicious cake. And when it’s time to kick ass, which is most of the time on this record, they get the fuck out of the way.
Here’s the thing though, part 4: The drum sound on this record is a bit off-putting. It’s doesn’t reach St. Anger levels of annoying, but there is a whole lot of tick-tack kick and snare. This is particularly jarring when the drums first kick in with vicious blasting after the lush orchestral intro on the album’s first track, “The Halls of Khazaddum”. As Plagues Upon Arda wears on, however, one grows somewhat accustomed to the sound. The mix as a whole is a bit cluttered, though that would be hard to avoid with a record this busy, and a smidge more oomph in the low-end wouldn’t hurt, but none of these sonic deficiencies are deal-breakers.
As to the style of death metal present, Nile is the easiest comparison. Both Khazaddum and Nile reside at the crossroads between brutal and technical death metal, and both bands bring something extra of their own to the table. Khazaddum is perhaps a bit more measured and focused than Nile tends to be, and more apt to employ slower tempos, as the band does to great effect in the grinding mid-section of “Legion of the White Hand”. Furthermore, the symphonic elements lead Khazaddum in a more melodic direction than is common for this type of death metal. The guitar solos are a little prettier and more thematic, and there can be some power metal-like bombast when the orchestration is used to the fullest. Make no mistake, though, Plagues Upon Arda is a death metal onslaught first and foremost, with a blast-beat and a punishing riff around every corner.
Credit is due to Khazaddum for not taking its epic death metal to epic lengths. There is plenty of meat on the bone here, but the longest song is 5:40, and the whole album wraps up in entirely digestible 38 minutes.
Plagues Upon Arda ultimately succeeds despite a few flaws. Khazaddum has a good handle on how to best use its symphonic gimmick, and, more importantly, a good handle on how to make convincing and crushing death metal. The Tolkien bit maybe doesn’t pay all the dividends it could, but my enjoyment of death metal has never hinged on understanding the lyrics, and if yours doesn’t either, you should find Plagues Upon Arda quite engaging.