I was a big fan of Savage Land, the debut from death metal supergroup Gruesome, because the early era of Death to which the album pays tribute is my favorite era of Death’s music. Death mastermind Chuck Schuldiner moved on pretty quickly from the horror and gore themes of Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy, and Chuck’s growing prowess and maturity, plus the addition of increasingly gifted members to the lineup, made the music much more sophisticated. However, there was a certain maniacal bloodlust that was really only present on Scream Bloody Gore and (to a lesser extent) Leprosy, and I was happy to get some more of that through Savage Land.
When it became clear with the release of the Dimensions of Horror EP that Gruesome was going to be more than a one-off affair, I wondered what direction the band would take and to what purpose. Would the band continue to mine the early Death style, or would the next album follow a logical progression and draw inspiration from the more technical mid-period albums, such as Spiritual Healing and/or Human? With the preacher on the cover and a title like Twisted Prayers, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Gruesome is definitely going for a Spiritual Healing vibe this time around.
Label: Relapse Records
That is not to say the Twisted Prayers is toothless, it just features more restrained and formulaic style of death metal. It is necessarily formulaic, because it is directly mimicking another band’s style, but also because the style it is mimicking is itself formulaic. Like Spiritual Healing, most of Twisted Prayers’ songs hover around five minutes, most tracks feature a signature harmonized melody, and they are primarily composed of mid-paced material, interspersed with a thrash break or two. It was an effective enough formula in 1990, and it still mostly works almost thirty years later. But a predictable copy of a predictable record is bound to be somewhat less than scintillating.
Sometimes, however, the formula works like a house on fire. “Fatal Illusions,” for instance, rips through its five minutes and twenty-four seconds with a combination of ferocity and laser-sharp focus that represents this style of death metal at its best. The track is no doubt better for the fact that it doesn’t get mired in the stilted, mid-paced bludgeoning that is this album’s Achilles’ heel.
It says something that the most vicious Gruesome sounds on Twisted Prayers is when the band closes out the album covering Possessed’s “The Exorcist.” It’s practically a note-for-note interpretation of the original, but the track’s unceasingly break-neck pace is a breath of fresh air after the mild tedium of the preceding 43 minutes.
Whatever one might say of songwriting on Twisted Prayers, the playing is beyond reproach. Twisted Prayers isn’t the most exciting of efforts, but it certainly shows a band that has gelled as a unit. Matt Harvey and Daniel Gonzalez fill this album with oodles of sweet-assed leads that would do James Murphy proud. The riffs and harmonies are performed with surgical precision, but with a very heavy hand where appropriate. The rhythm section of Gus Rios and Robin Mazen is similarly exacting in its performance, making sure every note hits like a hammer.
Ultimately, dear reader, your enjoyment of Twisted Prayers will rely largely on how much you enjoy Spiritual Healing, and how much you want more of it. Personally, Spiritual Healing does not represent my favorite era of Death’s career. Consequently, Twisted Prayers doesn’t appeal to me as much as Savage Land did. Furthermore, I can’t help but wonder if Gruesome might be better served with a somewhat less faithful tribute to Death, something that has more of a style that is Gruesome’s own. I wonder, too, what the band’s long term plan is. I think Gruesome is a very talented group, but if its strategy is to continue to release what are, practically speaking, remakes of Death records, I’m not sure how long metal fans will continue to find value in the project. Then again, if a progressive, tech-death album called Inhuman surfaces in a couple years, I’m probably going to at least give it a listen.