Sometimes the universe throws you a sign, y’know? I mean, some days that sign might be getting kicked in the beans by a neighbor kid passing by on a skateboard and heeding the cosmic instruction to give up on the day and go back to bed. But other days? Well…
Thank you, Will Shortz, and thy cursed realms of the puzzledemons, for the reminder to finally get down to business telling the world just how good this new Argus album is.
If you’re just tuning in, Pennsylvania’s Argus has, over the course of its three previous albums, proved itself one of the most righteous American defenders of stoutly traditional heavy metal in an otherwise relatively fallow period. The band’s self-titled debut in ‘09 and even fierier follow-up two years later in Boldly Stride the Doomed nailed a perfect blend of classic Maiden gallop and classic post-Sabbath doom (think Trouble, St Vitus, Revelation, Solitude Aeternus, Sorcerer), all delivered with a slightly proggy touch of melancholy. Their third album, 2013’s Beyond the Martyrs, saw Argus falter somewhat on a simply passable album that hit most of the necessary marks but failed to capture the same spirit. After a four-year wait, the band returns with heightened uncertainty, seeing as this is their first album since the departure of founding guitarist Erik Johnson and long-time bassist Andy Ramage.
Thankfully, the slight shakiness of Beyond the Martyrs and recent lineup changes are not harbingers of troubled times. On this truly masterful new album From Fields of Fire, the production is warm and wonderfully naturalistic, with the bass guitar providing a hugely swinging twang that complements the regal twin guitar licks. As always, the songwriting throughout is airtight, with beautiful themes set up cunningly and returned to unexpectedly (particularly in the album-bookending acoustic pieces). Proper album opener “Devils of Your Time” hits a killer high right out of the gate with its powerfully inspirational lyrics so stridently delivered (“Rise against the devils of your time; / Rise against panic’s crippling lies”), and its fake-out ending leads back into a hugely successful outro. Stylistically, you can almost see Argus as a mirror image (thank you, Brother Nimoy) of Pharaoh – where the latter is trad-leaning power, the former is doom-leaning trad. This means that their music rarely finds itself in particularly speedy territory, instead digging their heels deep into a sweet spot of unavoidably sturdy, fortifying heavy metal.
In general, the weighty, often melancholy aura that flecked Argus’s previous albums is present in much heavier doses here, but the band thrives on such darker terrain. “216” is a particular highlight in this gloomier vein, with an opening that drips with the same sustained longing as Warning. “Hour of Longing” concludes with a magnificently lyrical guitar solo, and while “Infinite Lives, Infinite Doors” might be a touch too long at eleven minutes, on a close listen, it’s not at all obvious where one could trim it without diminishing its power, particularly given that the mournful midsection boasts the album’s most sumptuous tones and weeping leads. In some of the album’s most beguiling moments, Argus finds the perfect tone of darkly epic heavy metal that Iron Maiden struck on the very best moments of The X Factor.
Argus’s vocalist Butch Balich underscores yet again his place as one of the finest vocalists in current heavy metal, an indispensability which is only reinforced by his performance on the Arduini/Balich album from earlier this year. His voice has a particular quality about it that’s hard to place exactly – the best I can come up with is that it’s a gentle roughness – but he absolutely lives inside of each and every lyric here, sounding alternately anguished, outraged, defiant, and resigned. On the truly spectacular album highlight “No Right to Grieve,” Balich explores a grimly rich low range of his voice that we haven’t heard previously. The song’s sprawling, overwhelmingly cathartic conclusion – as a dramatic guitar solo and drum duet leads into Balich’s most impassioned vocal turns of the album – is not only one of the best musical moments of the year, it is easily a highpoint of Argus’s entire career, and suggests that however doomed it might be, the future still holds promise.
From Fields of Fire is utterly essential heavy metal. How’s that for a sign?
Their best since their self-titled, in my opinion.
I’ve followed this band with great interest since their initial demo ten years ago. After giving this a good spin, my lasting feeling is that Erik’s departure has had a significant impact upon the songwriting.
This is still a triumphant release, and a worthy purchase for any fan of contemporary heavy/doom metal. But the distinctively sentimental second half was not up to the band’s typically high standards. Additionally, the twin guitar interplay throughout is not as seductively complex as previous albums.
Maybe only one and a half horns out of two for this one.