Thursday, March 31, 2016

Album Review: Artillery - "Penalty By Perception"

Not to make this about me, but it’s going to be about me for a minute.  For roughly a hundred years now, I have tried to be a fan of the band Artillery.  On paper, I should like everything that the band offers – no frills classic speed metal with solid riffing and tight musicianship.  It all should add up.  Yet, for all my efforts, for all the singles heard and albums listened to time and again, for whatever reason, Artillery doesn’t click for me.  It’s not a unique occurrence; I’ve had the same experience with Bolt Thrower and the Black Keys (though for different reasons, as one might surmise.)

Here I stand, faced again with another Artillery record, this time under the title “Penalty By Perception.”  Rather than sigh the sigh of the resigned and plod on through, my hope was high going into this record – maybe, just maybe this would be The One.

The answer to my prayer was both yes and no.  “Penalty By Perception” is both old in its approach and new in its execution.  The idiomatic style of Artillery remains largely unchanged, characterized by the winding machinations of the brothers Stutzer on guitar (Michael and Morten, who laid the groundwork for brother guitar tandems like the Arnotts,) and punctuated by snappy drumming that never falters in maintaining a streamlined beat.  Artillery has always prided themselves on the cleanliness of their music and production, and this album does nothing to muddy those waters – the overall sound, stereotypical crunch of thrash aside, is pure and intelligible, carefully but successfully recognizing the divide between clean and antiseptic.  The production here is top-notch, but the soul of the riffs as the brothers sling through “Welcome to the Mindfactory” remains gratefully whole.

Now, in pre-album press, the band gave the usual stock diatribe about wanting this record to be ‘heavier’ and whether or not they achieved that goal is a matter of debate.  Does “Penalty By Perception” sound more fuller and vicious than “Fear of Tomorrow?”  Sure it does, but how much of that is advancements in production technique and technology?

Regardless, the question of ‘heavy’ for this record is largely irrelevant, as the focus instead should be centered on the artistry of the songs themselves.  Artillery continues in the grand tradition of European speed metal, riding their well-paced verses into and out of the undulation of stomping choruses like skateboarders in a halfpipe.  All of these tunes have a certain formulaic rhythm to them, especially the opening track “In Defiance of Conformity,” which isn’t a bad thing.  Too many thrash acts now are content to simply blast along without thought to pacing or pattern, which makes them descend into the muck and noise.  Artillery, by contrast, weaves in and out of cadence with deliberateness, making for a more complete and worthwhile listen.

The riffs are really where the band shines, from the easy head-nodding of “Live By the Scythe” to the plodding power of “Mercy of Ignorance.”  Artillery isn’t really revolutionizing the way we think about metal guitar here, but what they are doing is an excellent job of recreating the craftsmanship and pace that has always marked the genre’s best work.

If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, here it is, and there’s a fair bet you know what this is going to say.  Eventually, all of the songs on “Penalty By Perception” really start to sound the same, and once you’ve hit that point, usually on the second play-through, interest in the album diminishes somewhat. “Sin of Innocence” has a really great, almost hollow intro reminiscent of Judas Priest’s “Night Crawler,” but then….turns into another Artillery song.

Which is disappointing, but “Penalty By Perception,” in small doses, might just be Artillery’s best album to date.  It has the proper balance of pomp and circumstance and burning metal slag to be convincing, and the band stands out among their still-active contemporaries because they DON’T sound like death warmed over.  The band is still tight and talented and they’ve written some good stuff here.  But in the end, you might find yourself asking “didn’t I listen to this song already?”

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