We live in an age of flight. Airplanes are so ubiquitous and mundane we really can’t imagine a time when the idea of travelling in the air at speed was kind of absurd. If you see someone roll out a new airplane design today you can be almost certain it is, at least, airworthy. It would be hard to imagine a time when an aircraft manufacturer mass produced a plane with a tendency to kill the pilots—and if they did you would not see the term “extremely successful” attached to the design. Yet the Sopwith Camel was just such a plane. It was so good at dog-fighting that the fact that pilots training on the plane had a significant chance of flipping it on takeoff and bashing their own heads in on the ground was considered a harsh but acceptable price.
Dark Heresy barnstormed the foggy concert circuits of the UK through the 90s, leaving a trail of sore necks—and, one has to assume, confused expectations in the propwash. Why the confusion? They are a death metal band, sure enough, but they do a lot of other blacker, folksier, baroquier things as well. And the vocals are a blackened growl rather than deathened blort. More than anything else they remind me of a combination of Resurrection, Opeth, and Cradle of Filth, though without those acts’ polish. That lack of polish is the first thing you hear on this re-release of their 1995 full length, Abstract Principles Taken To Their Logical Extremes.
The production resembles 80s thrash more than 90s death, giving the whole enterprise a quaint, almost black metal feel. This is not a bad thing at all, but it does give the band a sort of “what-if” sound that takes a bit to get over so that you can just focus on the important things.
The most important things are the riffs, which are pretty magnificent. In fact, given the groovy death crawls these fellows manage, the band really ought to have been a bigger deal. Resembling the best of the aforementioned acts, the oddly throwback production pushes the riffs out front and displays their creativity and interplay perfectly. Take the start/stop crunch of “Thy Blood,” for example—pure headbanging evilness, even without a thick 90s bottom end. Or the absolutely batshit insanity that is “Hole,” which starts out with a jazz piano-driven saloon opening and devolves into a completely impossible to describe anti-jazz metal fusion that is equal parts Mr. Bungle, Death, Santana, and Slayer.
Mixed into all the pulverizing are moments of Opethian progressive folk, complete with clean vocals and artsy baroque lyrics. But these are connected in Cradle of Filth-style tripped-up tempo and texture changes. It does not all work, but enough of it does that you are left at something of a loss. Is this band great on purpose, or just accidentally and occasionally? Based on the manner in which the rhythm section holds everything together, you kind of have to go with the former. In lesser hands these songs would be as unlistenable a mishmash of ideas as I kind of make it sound like they are. But the back end is absolutely killing it, pulling the songs together in an iron vice of progressive metal percussion.
Reissues are a always a problem for a reviewer. We are not fully able to ascribe context to the records, instead tending to see them as almost a tribute to another time. The issue can be broken into two questions: are you interested on obtaining old albums as a collector? In that case, this album is a fantastic addition. Bridging the gap between early and late 90’s death metal radiation in a unique fashion, this is something of an archaeopteryx, a true transitional fossil. Are you just looking for a cool and unique death metal record? Again, this fits the bill, though you may find it a little anachronistic and patchy. You need to keep the context in mind.
So, in the end, completionists really ought to own this, and the reissue is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. And average goober death metal freaks like me should also probably own this. Don’t expect it to change how you see death metal, but do allow it to change how you see the history of the genre.
And if you ever find yourself about to take your first flight in a Sopwith Camel, remember to use that rudder and kill-switch liberally. You can’t bang a head that no longer exists.