Heavy metal cover art has an occasional tendency to overbill the music it represents. Take, for instance, the spectacularly phantasmagorical cover of the last Bell Witch album, Mirror Reaper. That cover promises an otherworldly mind-fuck, but sadly, the band instead delivers 80-odd minutes of irredeemable tedium. Such is not the Case with Smoulder’s Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring. The album’s Michael Whelan cover-art, lifted from a C. J. Cherryh fantasy novel, promises no less than epic heavy metal, and Smoulder delivers. Gird thy loins and little else, proud warriors. Place thy bosoms in surely uncomfortable and thoroughly impractical steel brassieres, fierce battle maidens. Take up thy steel, one and all, and make ready for heavy metal of the truest and most thunderous sort.
All these sword-swinging lyrical themes are well paired with a style of doom that is infused with a fair dose of trad-metal vigor. At its best, Smoulder makes vibrant, dynamic compositions that owe as much to Manilla Road’s epic heavy metal as they do to Candlemass’s traditional doom.
Traditional metal and traditional doom both, generally, place a heavy load on vocalists, as there are actual notes to hit and melodies to carry. With Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring’s highly narrative songs, that load is heavier than usual. Smoulder vocalist Sarah Ann has a tough row to hoe, as she is in many ways the driving force of this record, but she bears up admirably. Ann’s style isn’t flashy; she’s not prone to vocal acrobatics, but her voice is nonetheless a powerful presence on these songs, delivering the lyrics and some very memorable melodies strongly and clearly.
Times of Obscene Evil’s opening track “Ilian of Garathorm” is its strongest, and it best displays Smoulder’s self-described “epic doom metal” style. The track sits in a mid-tempo sweet spot that allows the doom riffs to retain their heft, but also enables the snarling mid-range riffs to remain propulsive. Furthermore, the track is complemented by some tasteful dual guitar harmonies, and some Black Sabbath/Candlemass-like vocal-mirroring melodies. “Ilian of Garathorm” is also Sarah Ann’s most rousing performance. When she sings “Fate Calls A Champion,” you want to take up the nearest, vaguely sword-like object, and be that champion.
Notable as well is the track “Bastard Steel,” which finds Smoulder on the verge of power/speed metal. The song has the anthemic, fist-pumpingly triumphant quality of Helloween mixed with a little British steel, if you catch my drift. Though Sarah Ann, as stated above, is not prone to vocal acrobatics, the falsetto wolf howl in the first chorus is the perfect embellishment at the perfect time.
If Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring has a failing it is that of pacing. The album closes with two slow-burners in “Shadowy Sisterhood” and “Black God’s Kiss.” Neither track is bad taken on its own, but together they add up to about 15 minutes of slow doom without a suitable climax between them. Changing the running order would improve the flow of the album considerably. Just the same, at only 38 minutes, Times cannot really be said to drag.
In all, Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring is an impressive debut. The band’s classic take on doom and embracing of classic, if clichéd, heavy metal themes is a breath of fresh air. A little escapism never hurt anyone, and in an increasingly complicated world, being transported for a time to a place where might, right, and three feet of steel is all you need to set things straight is a rare comfort. Smoulder seems to be pretty damn good at this heavy metal thing; if I were you I’d give this one a listen.