It’s good to have your preconceptions upended. It’s good to be surprised. But it doesn’t actually happen that often, especially as you age and the boundaries around your taste solidify. After a few decades of engagement with art, you know what you like. So while it’s certainly possible to be blown away by a record in a genre you’ve largely shrugged off (or turned your back on outright), it’s rare, because you’re unlikely to encounter that record in the first place. You’re just not checking for it anymore.
Sunbomb‘s debut album, Evil And Divine, is one of those rare records that comes flying out of nowhere and makes you say, “Fuck, what have I been missing?” It’s so strong and vital that it may inspire listeners to dive into its makers’ back catalogs. But in this case, that could be a risky endeavor.
Sunbomb, you see, is a new project from singer Michael Sweet and guitarist Tracii Guns. Sweet is the vocalist for long-running Christian metal act Stryper, and Guns is the leader of equally long-running glam/hair metal band L.A. Guns. They’re joined by bassist Mitch Davis and drummer Adam Hamilton (a member of L.A. Guns in the mid-2000s), with current L.A. Guns bassist Johnny Martin playing on one track.
L.A. Guns‘ first three albums are well regarded among aficionados of ’80s hair metal, a style I enjoy when it’s done well (early Ratt, the first three W.A.S.P. albums, Mötley Crüe‘s Shout at the Devil, Junkyard‘s debut), but I’ve never heard them. Nor have I ever listened to a Stryper album. So the prospect of a collaboration between two guys from bands I never paid attention to 30+ years ago was not immediately enticing, especially when there was a chance the songs might turn out to be about Jesus.
But I took a chance on this record, and I’m very glad I did, because it’s about as far from hair metal as can be. Sunbomb are a doomy hard rock/traditional metal band likely to appeal to fans of Candlemass, Trouble, or Heaven and Hell (the name the Ronnie James Dio-fronted version of Black Sabbath took when they reunited in the mid-2000s) than hair metal. Evil and Divine is an 11-track slab of old school whomp, classicist but with enough of its own identity to stand out as a vital journeyman effort.
Sweet’s got one of those metal voices that’s clearly been strengthened — but, crucially, not coarsened — by years on the road. He’s capable of the kind of operatic flourishes that make traditional/power metal, the kind played by present-day bands like Visigoth, thrilling. He roars and bellows on the heavy tracks that make up the bulk of the album, and croons from the heart on the token ballad, “Been Said and Done.” He’s got a powerful upper register, but almost never resorts to falsetto or shrieking.
Guns, who wrote the music, takes a similar approach in his playing. He’s cranking out doomy biker-rock riffs that fans of Dio-era Sabbath, Scott “Wino” Weinrich‘s various bands (the Obsessed, Spirit Caravan, et al.) and the like will respond to immediately and viscerally. Sunbomb don’t wallow at lugubrious tempos; they’re a hard-charging rock outfit, heavy but deceptively fast. And his solos are explosive but efficient, getting in and getting out, saying what needs to be said and no more.
Guns and Sweet are definitely working within a specific style throughout Evil and Divine, so it’s going to be easy to pick out tracks that nod to work by other artists. Album opener “Life” careens down the highway with the same fervor as Trouble‘s “Heaven On My Mind,” while “World Gone Wrong” is one of the slowest songs, and is very reminiscent of something like Heaven and Hell‘s “The Turn of the Screw.” “Born to Win” begins with a fairly blatant knockoff of the opening to Led Zeppelin‘s “Good Times Bad Times” before moving into a fast, heavy punk-metal groove. But Sunbomb have an impassioned, wailing-at-the-rafters quality that’s genuinely surprising. Too often, when veteran musicians make a stylistic left turn, the results are half-assed and disappointing. You want to say, “Well, you tried,” but more than that you want to walk away and pretend the whole thing never happened. Not in this case. Evil and Divine is one of the best doomy trad metal records in years, possibly even more appealing if, like me, you’re totally ignorant of its creators’ previous work.
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