House of Atreus – The Spear and the Ichor That Follows
2015 – Dark Descent Records
Mythology and heavy metal, is there a better match? At this point in the genre’s history it’s almost a cliché/copout for a metal band to use mythology as lyrical and visual fodder but, regardless of the overuse of mythological imagery and content, when it’s done right you can’t help but raise a fist to the elder gods and pay tribute.
Over the years tons of bands have adopted themes from mythology and folklore in an attempt to convey brutality and mysticism. Some succeed because they fully commit, such as Nile’s historically accurate depiction of Egyptian rituals or Primordial’s use of Celtic themes, but many fall victim to repetition and creative stagnation; Amon Amarth’s gimmickyViking metal shtick is one barnacle that springs to mind. The trick lies in a band’s ability to balance well-worn thematic ground with compelling songwriting. History proves this is easier said than done.
On paper, Minneapolis’ melodic death metalers House of Atreus probably seem like they belong in the latter category; Greek mythology inspired melodic death metal? Yeah, that sounds boring. Thankfully quality trumps convention, and on House of Atreus’ debut full length, The Spear and the Ichor That Follows, quality is priority number one. Riff after riff, this albums shreds like a wood chipper.
But let’s take a step back and talk about the elephant in the room; melodic death metal isn’t “cool” anymore. Melodic death metal gained popularity in the late 90s as an extension of the hugely influential Swedish death metal sound made popular by bands like Entombed, Dismember, Grave, and Nihilist (whose guitarist Leffe Cuzner created the signature “buzzsaw” guitar tone by running a maxed out Boss HM-2 through a Boss DS-1). But where the Swedish DM sound focused heavily on traditional blues progressions and melodies, the Melodic DM sound of the late 90s opted for more dual harmonies and prog-rock influences and eventually included almost equal parts clean and guttural vocals.
If you were a metalhead growing up in the 90s then you likely remember the explosion of this particular style. Bands like In Flames, Dark Tranquility, and Soilwork quickly became the darlings of the scene, and by the early 2000s the influence of those early Swedish pioneers could hardly be heard anymore. The Gothenburg (the geographical home base) style of death metal took over and overstayed its welcome long after the initial buzz faded. I’ll admit to falling for the melodic styling of the aforementioned bands but, as I mentioned, the massive popularity of this new style of extremity quickly saturated the metal media and lost its luster. In recent years the melodic death metal scene has lost a lot of clout, and thankfully we are seeing a resurgence of the older styles of death metal.
So what does this have to do with House of Atreus? Everything and nothing. My little history lesson serves to highlight a stigma in the metal community. For many the term “melodic death metal” is synonymous with low-rent rock radio bullshit and Hot Topic loitering teens–not a pleasant thought. But House of Atreus are melodic death metal in the strictest of terms. Their brand of death is deeply rooted in the Swedish tradition, but their use of melody is akin to the guitar stylings of NWoBHM bands like Iron Maiden and Cloven Hoof, with a little early era Bathory thrown in for good measure.
The combination of these influences results in some truly glorious songwriting; riff after riff House of Atreus create battle-ready mid-paced death marches, from the first track to the last. The use of Greek mythology actually adds a layer of depth to The Spear… It gives these anthems a clear context and purpose, and the lyrical content matches the intensity and glory of the riffs surrounding them. The vocal performance is about as solid as it gets for this type of death metal, and Anxietous Nero’s mid-range growls and occasional dips into black metal territory never overshadow or detract from the music. It should also be noted that the drumming on this album is simply amazing. It’s easy to overlook the drums on a record with so much stellar guitar work, but Ogre Thumos’ performance gives the perfect backbone for the guitarists to build upon.
Songs like opener “Trenches of Fortune” kick off with machine gun riffing that quickly breaks into a positively epic little melody that sets the tone for the seven tracks that follow. “Heir to the Crown of Sodom” changes things up by using an up-tempo black metal riff before chugging forward like a bulldozer. Even album closer “The River Black” goes for the throat, which might be the best way to describe the entire album; The Spear… is as relentless and fun as death metal gets.
Yes, The Spear and the Ichor That Follows is a melodic death metal album, but that doesn’t mean what you might think. This is real death metal: no clean singing, no keyboards, and no spacey interludes. It’s four dudes from the Midwest who know how to fucking play. House of Atreus showed a ton of promise on their 2013 EP Into the Brazen Bull, and their full-length fulfills every promise they made–putting them among the ranks of underground heroes like Sacriphyx and Ares Kingdom. Regardless of your opinion of melodic death metal or mythology, every metalhead who pays tribute to the power of the riff should give The Spear and the Ichor That Follows a spin.