Don’t mention the war. The classic English idiom, perhaps best known for its hilarious use in the Fawlty Towers episode, The Germans, has become one of the great clichés of international relations and diplomacy. Someone clearly forgot to tell the heavy metal community, for whom the history, stories and characters of warfare whilst not necessarily obsessional are certainly leitmotifs that border on the obsessional. This year notable releases from Panzer Division and Eastern Front have added to a long tradition of metalheads dipping into the history books for creative inspiration.
This brings me neatly to the new opus from Dutch metallers God Dethroned. “Under the Sign of the Iron Cross”, the second instalment in a storyboard against the backdrop and horrors of World War One is a companion piece to their last release, the almost universally applauded “Passiondale”. “Passiondale” was a great leap forward, both in terms of technical prowess and creative imagination. The honing of the black and death metal traditions, with a focus on songwriting craft, a narrative backdrop that needed little introduction and a fluidity of playing saw the band raise their own standards to much deserved praise and acclaim.
“Under the Sign of the Iron Cross” feels much more like a consolidation of position: a brutal entrenchment as opposed to a further risk take. This is as brutal and punishing as you could hope for. The title track, for example, opening like a distended Slayer off-cut soon launches into a maelstrom of brutality with fierce and , frankly, extraordinary drumming, punishing guitar work and a backing riff that could strip paint off walls. It’s emblematic of the band’s inherent power and aggression. Similarly the atmospheric ‘The Killing is Faceless’ is best understood at ridiculous volume- which is exactly as it should be.
Sadly though, the rest of the record doesn’t quite pass muster. Although it has its moments, there is a sense of the law of diminishing returns applying here. Sometimes the time changes seem forced, rather than integral to the dynamics and some of the lyricism, despite having the richest possible heritage are, on occasion, woeful. Take, for example, ‘The Red Baron’, based on the German soldier of the same name, has a series of shoehorned rhyming couplets that would have your English teacher suggesting a week’s detention. It’s a shame because the musicianship on display is powerful and compelling.
I really wanted to love this album. Don’t get me wrong: there’s some stuff here that stands well with the best of their material but overall it’s just OK- not awful, not magisterial, just OK. That might be enough for some listeners but in a year when bands like Triptykon, Melechesh and Enslaved have redefined the parameters of what’s possible for extreme music, “Under the Sign of the Iron Cross”, whilst fine in and of itself is not the landmark release that one could have hoped for. OK may not be good enough any more.