Do you like your thrash on the blackened side? How about with a progressive flair? Well then, have I got the band for you.
Dave Mustaine once allegedly claimed that there was no room for keyboards in heavy metal. Although the motormouth would go on to one day eat his own crow after recruiting cheese gods Children of Bodom for the 2008 edition of Gigantour, Mustaine’s sentiment is one that has largely prevailed in the often bizarrely conservative realm of extreme metal wherein bands that experiment with the classic formula are considered masturbatory at best and novelties at worst. If Mustaine and other true-bloods ever hear young Sacramento black/thrash duo Sarcoptes‘ debut album Songs and Dances of Death, they’ll be singing a different tune.
Formed in 2008 in a dank basement somewhere on the West Coast, the duo of Sean Zimmerman (guitar, bass, and keyboards) and Garrett Garvey (vocals and drums) spent the first five years of their life as Sarcoptes honing their craft and paying their dues. Their mission: to hearken back to the air-lock tight songswriting of the late 80s/early 90s era of metal with a modern, almost progressive twist. On their first recording, 2013’s EP Thanatos, the duo proved that they had the chops, and more importantly the riffs, to capitalize on that ambition.
Fastforwarding to 2016, Sarcoptes have finally released a full-length after penning a deal with underground label Cimmerian Shade Recordings. How does Songs and Dances of Death compare to Thanatos? It’s an improvement in every way. While both tracks on Thanatos, “The Veil of Disillusion” and “The Sexton’s Spade” feature killer riffs and tight change-ups between black metal blasts and conventional thrash metal tempos, the two songs are bit uniform and in fact feel indistinct when compared to the other tracks on Songs and Dances of Death (both songs from the EP are included as the first two tracks on the full-length). The remaining four tracks just outshine them in every way and display the glorious heights to which Sarcoptes can ascend.
For one thing, the keyboards are used mostly as atmospheric orchestration on “The Veil of Disillusion” and “The Sexton’s Spade,” but they serve a much more intrinsic role in the other cuts. Take third track “The Fall of Constantinople” for instance. In addition to sporting stronger thrash riffs at the beginning than those featured on previous songs, Zimmerman pulls off an absolutely killer interplay between his razor-sharp guitar lines and the orchestral keys around 1:30 into the song. This interplay, and the excellent melody it creates, juxtaposes against the harsh black metal aesthetic and viciousness of the historical lyrics to really hook your interest. The remaining songs follow a similar path of smartly allowing orchestration and choral effects to flit in and out of the weaving guitar lines in a truly captivating fashion.
Garvey’s drum contributions aren’t to be ignored either. Although it would be easy to describe the blasts and full-throttle rhythms of a song like “Barbarossa” as unrelenting and call it a day, it’s really the subtle changes the skinsman uses that maintain your attention throughout. Garvey is able to seamlessly flow from stock thrash gallops to pummeling double bass lines to what can only be described as Howitzer-grade bombs of percussive walls that will completely knock you off your feet.
Perhaps the real highlight of Songs and Dances of Death are the final two tracks, though. Although it is easy to lose the plot when song lengths reach a ten minute or greater mark, the scope of both “Barbarossa” and “Within the Labyrinth Mind” really allows the songs to explore create riffs, melodies, and to take listeners on a wild ride. “Barbarossa” ends on a mighty note of gunfire and artillery shells that will surely make jaded heshers from the 80s smile, but it’s in the ultra-right, black metal-influenced riffs interspersed between grandiose keyboard flourishes, mesmerizing layered vocals, and nuanced percussive syncopation in “Within the Labyrinth Mind” that the band really demonstrates their full capabilities. This track is expansive and utterly captivating throughout, deftly weaving from one blasted trench to the next as the keys and riffs soar and scour the wind. It’s beautiful, to put it frankly.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better debut thrash album in 2016 than Songs and Dances of Death. That said, like any debut, the record is not without flaws. Although Garvey’s vocals are excellent throughout (especially considering the fact that he’s pulling double duty as the drummer) and maintain both a hard black metal edge while providing clear enunciation, the interesting pitch shifts used in “Within the Labyrinth Mind” demonstrate the band could easily push the envelope in this department. Additionally lacking is much a distinct bass. Although Zimmerman is credited for bass duty on the album, the bass is as thin or absent as on any black metal record. This is a shame, because classic thrash metal bands have shown time again how much heft and weight an audible bass can add to a production.
Still, aside from the slightly two weaker songs from the EP, Songs and Dances of Death is a tight, vicious, and adventurous album that stands out in a genre not known for much deviation. Bravo to Sarcoptes. I hope the duo continues this killer streak on later records.