In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s Polonius tells us “This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” It’s sage advice from The Bard, and has become the stuff of scholarly study, life coaching and millennial tattoos. So too it must be with music, and thus we are faced with Goatwhore’s new album, “Vengeful Ascension.”
The press releases accompanying this album speak a great deal about Goatwhore wanting to produce the most honest, Goatwhore-est album to date, allowing for little outside influence and promising simply the unadulterated chaos of the songwriter’s ambition. A laudable goal for a band who’s managed to stick around in the underground for nearly twenty years. It probably stands to reason that after six albums, the band would want to take their seventh to return to the touchstones which made them establish their career in the first place.
So we come to “Vengeful Ascension” with the realization that what we have here is a raw version of the already blue-rare music that we’ve come to know and love from Goatwhore over the years. And yet, this is where the dilemma comes in…
Frankly, this album isn’t as good as the band’s two most previous works, though it’s equally hard to condemn because it’s clearly the kind of album that Goatwhore wanted to make, essentially a return to the mold rather than a breaking of it.
Now, let’s not be hasty – there are some great moments. “Under the Flesh, Into the Soul” has exactly the rumble that modern extreme metal, or thrash for that matter, so often lacks. The defining character of the song is the stop and go riff, which utilizes empty space to make the notes pop and add some dimension above the thorough pounding of the drums beneath. This is where Goatwhore has always excelled, in the accessibility of their guitar riffs that concentrate on something other than simply playing fast.
This same thing goes for “Mankind Will Have No Mercy,” which could have passed for a cover of an early Anthrax song minus the grisly lyrics. Similarly though, we hear the punk influence in the drums and quick, staccato riffing that move the narration of the song without losing the audience. If the album could have stuck to those tenets exclusively, “Vengeful Ascension” could have been great.
The issue is that too much of the album, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, simply descends into a paroxysm of smashing and banging. Much of what one supposes were supposed to be the heaviest, most intimidating and visceral bits of the record lack flavor in the single tone of their execution. “Where the Sun is Silent” and “Decayed Omen Reborn” manage to leave the launch pad, but never really deviate from a ho-hum flight plan. The attempt was obviously to show a more deliberate dynamic with the band’s music, but it doesn’t come out as anything all that interesting.
By contrast, we’re faced with several selections such as album closer “Those Who Denied God’s Will,” which give the impression of simply wanting to be black metal songs. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with Goatwhore wanting to write black metal songs, but it seems outside the wheelhouse of their strengths.
So in the end, there’s a distinct conundrum when one considers “Vengeful Ascension.” The album falls short of the relatively lofty bar set by “Constricting Rage of the Merciless,” and is also shy of the pinnacle that was “Blood for the Master,” but for all intents and purposes appears to be the music that Goatwhore honestly wants to make, and its hard to criticize any professional artist for following their passion. Nobody here is going to tell Goatwhore they can’t do what they want, but the truth of the matter is that we’re also within our rights to not enjoy it as much.