Kreator are one of the “Big Three” German thrash metal bands of the 1980s (paralleling the “Big Four” in the U.S.: Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax). Along with Destruction and Sodom, they established a new paradigm for German metal, seizing the spotlight from veterans like Scorpions and Accept. Each of these bands brought something different to the table. Sodom were practically cavemen, battering their instruments in a manner that made Venom and Motörhead sound like prog-rockers. Destruction were their polar opposites, tight, hard-riffing masters of the thrash form who created some of the most anthemic songs of the era. Kreator fell somewhere in the middle—while tracks from early albums like Pleasure to Kill and Endless Pain had a punky aggression, their guitar sound and frantic double bass drumming was pure metal. What really set Kreator apart, though, was vocalist Mille Petrozza‘s lyrical sensibility, which was more explicitly political and socially engaged than anything his peers were offering. He went beyond rote criticisms of government oppression and dealt with subjects like environmental damage and Germany’s Nazi legacy.
After five superb albums (Endless Pain, Pleasure to Kill, Terrible Certainty, Extreme Aggression and Coma of Souls) between 1985 and 1990, Kreator underwent some stylistic shifts on a string of less artistically and commercially successful albums: 1992’s Renewal, 1995’s Cause for Conflict, 1997’s Outcast and 1999’s Endorama saw the band embracing elements of industrial and eschewing things like guitar solos and high-speed riffing. But in their third decade, beginning with 2001’s Violent Revolution and continuing on 2005’s Enemy of God and 2009’s Hordes of Chaos, they’ve reclaimed their status as thrash metal royalty. Their experimental phase over, they’re now about retaining hard-earned status. And Phantom Antichrist, despite its inscrutable title, is a hell of a holding action. (Buy it from Amazon.)
Kreator’s thrash sound is as muscular as ever in 2012, but there are some surprises to be found on the album. The third track, “From Flood into Fire,” sounds like the band has been listening to Swedish melodic death metal act Arch Enemy; the opening guitar fanfare is almost identical to “Enter the Machine,” the opening track from that band’s 2005 album Doomsday Machine, and the chorus has the same fist-pumping quality that’s taken Arch Enemy from club shows to festival main stages. Other tracks, notably the galloping “Civilization Collapse,” the marching “The Few, the Proud, the Broken,” and the moody “Your Heaven My Hell,” seem to take elements from recent Iron Maiden; they’ve got the same meditative, folk-through-a-wall-of-amps feel as albums like A Matter of Life and Death and The Final Frontier, and on “Your Heaven My Hell,” bassist Christian Geisler gets the kind of space in the mix Steve Harris has long enjoyed.
All that said, Kreator are still themselves, and there’s not a bad song on this record. The guitar team of Mille Petrozza and Sami Yli-Sirniö (with the band since 2001) trade lead lines, shifting between raw thrash intensity and classically-inspired shredding, and Petrozza’s vocals are as fierce as they’ve ever been. Drummer Jürgen “Ventor” Reil, like Petrozza a founding member of the group, is a hard-hitting, relentless player who’s nevertheless capable of surprising subtlety when the occasion requires. While Phantom Antichrist offers only nine tracks (plus a short instrumental intro) in 45 minutes, that turns out to be a plus, as they make every song count, shifting style just enough from track to track that the disc never becomes samey or monotonous. These guys are true masters of their art, and this is one of the best albums of their career.