There is a fine line separating consistency and triteness; it’s easy for an artist to recycle material over and over, especially when they’ve been around for as long as Hour of Penance. It’s easy to point to other artists who play the same field as examples of this: the last couple Aborted albums, while fun, are nearly interchangeable; Cognizance plays literally all of their music at the same tempo (and most of it in the same key); and Fleshgod Apocalypse is, well, Fleshgod Apocalypse (though in all fairness, King tried a bunch of new stuff). Downtuned blastbeat marathons can be fun, but they get tiresome quickly; Hour of Penance seem to have realized this, changing things up a bit on 2014’s Regicide. Now, with Cast the First Stone, they take those changes a step further while streamlining their sound for a more varied, yet cohesive listening experience.
Cast the First Stone thunders out of the gate with “XXI Century Imperial Crusade,” a supremely violent headbanger that both hearkens back to the band’s roots and showcases their improved songwriting chops. Their riffs are creative as they’ve ever been here, moving with fluidity and savagery in equal measure and employing rests to devastating effect. Similarly, the drums are more varied and interesting than the constant deluge of blasts on prior records. The greater sense of melody developed on Regicide is present here as well, with a short but sweet guitar solo and more subtle, reserved leads interspersed throughout. Paolo Pieri’s vocal delivery is intense and unwavering; while he generally sticks to a low-mid scream, he accents his lines with enough doubled highs and lows to keep it interesting, certainly more so than on any previous record. It serves as a perfect overture to the album’s musical and lyrical themes, a harsh examination of the ideological clash of the East and West.
There are some surprises that aren’t hinted at on the opening track, though. A significant portion of the album is much slower than the typical Hour of Penance fare, and these segments are some of the best on the record. “Burning Bright” ditches the tremolo-and-blasts assault halfway through in favor of a regal half-time Phrygian riff and some experimentation with time signatures. “Iron Fist” picks up again immediately afterwards, but drops off to a crawling doom passage that evolves into one of the nastiest headbangers on the album. Closing tracks “Wall of Cohorts” and “Damnatio Memoriae” cap off the album with some light progressive and orchestral elements, again slowing the pace and relying on groove to bring power to the music. The variety is most welcome, and the band’s experimentation in this regard has paid off tremendously.
Across multiple listens, I not only found very little to complain about, but enjoyed it more with subsequent plays. Sure, the production is pretty sterile and it’s not like they’re reinventing the wheel musically, but it’s an incredibly competent album. The songs are varied, the already solid musicianship has been improved, and above all, it’s enjoyable for the entirety of its run. I do wish I would have had a copy of the lyrics on hand for this review given its weighty concept, but the music was certainly fun regardless (and you can hear more about the lyrics here at about 21:11 if you are curious). You won’t go wrong with this one, and for that it earns:
4/5 Toilets Burning Bright
Cast the First Stone is out Friday, January 27th via Prosthetic Records and can also be acquired at Bandcamp. You can follow Hour of Penance on Facebook for updates and whatnot; let them know the Toilet says hello.