by Phil Freeman
Memoriam are a British death metal band made up of two members each from two highly regarded veteran acts: vocalist Karl Willets and drummer Andrew Whale both come from Bolt Thrower, while guitarist Scott Fairfax and bassist Frank Healy are both from Benediction (Fairfax was also in Cerebral Fix, an underrated late ’80s/early ’90s outfit). Their debut album, 2017’s For the Fallen, was a quality effort in an instantly recognizable style—other than the odd squealing pinch harmonic from Fairfax, the focus was on honoring their own past. With their downtuned, bulldozer-stuck-in-mud riffing, minimalist and martial drumming, and Willets’ hoarse, preaching-the-apocalypse vocals, these songs were a reward for longtime fans.
This was to be expected, of course, from musicians in their 50s who’d been doing their thing for three decades. (Bolt Thrower and Cerebral Fix formed in 1986, Benediction three years later.) Like other metal lifers—Lemmy, Scott “Wino” Weinrich, Obituary‘s John and Donald Tardy—they love what they do and see no need to change. And if your ideas are good ones, you can ride them all the way to hell.
One year after For the Fallen, Memoriam have returned with The Silent Vigil (get it from Amazon). It’s longer, offering nine tracks in just under 50 minutes, compared to eight in less than 44 on the debut, but still concise. The biggest changes are in the lyrical content and the overall sound. For the Fallen—indeed, the entire project—was dedicated to former Bolt Thrower drummer Martin Kearns and Healy’s father, both of whom died in 2015. It had a mournful, almost Beckettian feel, like they were writing death metal songs in tribute to those they’d lost because writing death metal songs was all they knew how to do. This time out, they’ve turned their attention outward, and are focused on the problems of the outside world.
Bolt Thrower mostly wrote songs about war, but always from the post-“War Pigs” POV that the real concern isn’t who wins or loses, but the poor people who have their bodies ground into the mud for abstract political goals or corporate/state greed. There’s relatively little of that on The Silent Vigil; instead, Willets is protesting racism, injustice, and as the title of the album’s final track puts it, “Weaponised Fear.” On “Bleed the Same,” the band deploys samples of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—whereas on “War Rages On” from the debut, they used the voice of Winston Churchill. A class-based political message still comes through here and there, of course; on “The New Dark Ages,” Willets croaks “Humanity a slave/For corporate chains/The poor grow weak/The rich man gains.”
The actual sound of The Silent Vigil is very different from For the Fallen, though, and that’s unfortunate. The debut had a crisp, roaring attack, with machine-gun drums surrounded by grinding but precise guitar and bass, and it was mixed loud as hell without being overpowering. The new album feels about two volume notches quieter, and the music is a blurry morass, the guitars and bass mashed down into a thick gray paste. The songs are just as good as the ones on the debut—they just don’t sound as good as they did the last time.
Memoriam are a band of old dudes making music by old rules. There’s not a single riff, drumbeat, or other sound here that you couldn’t imagine hearing on a record released anytime between, say, 1986 and 1995. In other words, they’re masters of their craft. Their mixing engineer may have let them down a bit this time, but that’s what volume knobs are for.