There was a time some months ago when Primordial were the subject of more than one national newspaper article that asked the question: ‘Why isn’t this band huge in Ireland?’ Cited were the band’s longevity (20-plus years and eight albums now under their belts), their significant touring profile and record sales across Europe, but mainstream recognition in their homeland continues to elude them.
Is it a matter of genre? They’ve always been characterized as black metal—indelibly connected in the mainstream consciousness with church burnings and murder—but that label’s never been a tidy fit. Even on their debut album, 1995’s Ímrama, the overriding influence in their sound was not black but death metal, with a full-bodied guitar tone and a swinging sense of rhythm behind the murky production, and only Alan ‘AA Nemtheanga’ Averill’s occasional blood-curdling screams nodding to the Scandinavian second wave of Emperor, Mayhem, Darkthrone et al.
Over the years they’ve evolved from that hardly primitive state, blending in a similar kind of baroque extremity to that of contemporaries Cradle of Filth on 1998’s A Journey’s End, which also betrayed some of the traditional Celtic musical style adopted by Irish fellow travellers Cruachan and Waylander. Later records Spirit The Earth Aflame (2000) and Storm Before Calm (2002) upped the tremolo riffing, but not the production quality; it would take a move to Metal Blade Records to do their growing live reputation justice. And their debut for the label, 2005’s The Gathering Wilderness, also marked a significant change in style for the band, not least in Averill’s switch from moribund proclamations and piercing shrieks to bellowed battle cries, setting the stage for the rollicking anthems (of a kind) that they trade in today.
But maybe, as the band’s outspoken frontman is keenly aware, they’re just victims of a quirk of Irish society at large, quick as we are to venerate middle-of-the-road tax exiles U2 as the “biggest band in the world” while all but ignoring homespun Talent-with-a-capital-T in the mighty Thin Lizzy who, though just as populist and arguably as popular, actually made a difference in the musical landscape. So “huge” may never be a label attributed to Primordial in terms of mainstream success at home, but it’s perfectly suited to describing the music, never more so than on their latest album Where Greater Men Have Fallen. Indeed, “huge” is probably the most objective term anyone could use. The opening title track sets that stage with a crashing tidal wave of a riff over thundering drums, on top of which Averill hollers at the limits of his voice. It’s searing stuff, evoking the windswept ruins of mid ’80s Killing Joke at their most exhilarating.
And that’s the overriding aural theme on Where Greater Men Have Fallen. In the producer’s chair is Jaime Gomez Arellano, who also manned the decks on Grave Misama’s Odori Sepulcrorum, and who here captures a visceral bombast that’s more befitting the band’s stage presence. Even on slower-paced songs like “Babel’s Tower” (with its syncopated beat in the verses), “Come the Flood,” and especially the intro to the hard-swinging “Ghosts of the Charnel House,” Simon O’Laoghaire’s drums pack an enormous ‘Albini room’ wallop—matched in volume by Ciáran MacUiliam and Michael O’Floinn’s twin guitars, mostly playing in chorus but occasionally splitting octaves or digressing into solos for that Thin Lizzy-meets-Judas Priest contact high.
There is some stuff that doesn’t quite work. The track sequencing is a little off: “Come the Flood” would be better before the more doleful “Babel’s Tower” for a flowing descent in pace at the outset. The album’s main concession to black metal, “The Seeds of Tyrants,” goes hard against the current of the songs that surround it, and in any case comes off more a late album curio than where it actually lies, smack in the middle of the track listing; better is “The Alchemist’s Head,” more interesting to the ear with its varied rhythms, including a 6/4 pre-verse beat, and Averill’s hoarse vocal workout. Pól MacAmlaigh’s bass is best fitting on the title track when it’s noisy and grinding in contrast to the crisp guitars and the clean-ish vocals, not smoothing out the edges of the anthemic closer “Wield Lighting to Split the Sun.” And the meandering folk-inspired intro to the already lengthy “Born to Night” (it’s nine minutes 25 seconds in total) bloats what’s really a head-nodding Primordial tribute to Judas Priest, as if Averill weren’t already channeling his inner Rob Halford throughout.
Still, most of these criticisms are on cosmetic issues, which points to the strength of the album overall. Yet again—following the blistering comeback record from Eyehategod earlier this year, and even the Priest themselves with Redeemer of Souls—we have an example of a veteran band stepping up their game with perhaps the strongest platter of their career, even if it only serves as an advertisement for their live spectacle. So what if the Irish public won’t take Primordial to their hearts? We don’t know what we’re missing.
Stream Where Greater Men Have Fallen on Spotify: