Empire State Bastard – ‘Rivers of Heresy’

By Fiachra Johnston

If idle hands are the devil’s playthings, then Simon Neil is holiest among us. Between his return to pop-rock outfit Marmaduke Duke and teasing the upcoming valium-laced project Tippie Toes, the Biffy Clyro frontman has his plate filled to the brim for the foreseeable future. So naturally, what is one to do but join your touring guitarist and Oceansize frontman Mike Vennart and drumming legend Dave Lombardo of Slayer in an experimental metal fusion band?

Naturally.

Empire State Bastard is the rabid love child of this unholy trinity, an esoteric experiment that attempts to intertwine the tenets of extreme metal with each member’s own musical flair. Punky, sardonic, and visceral, their debut release, ‘Rivers of Heresy’ is an eclectic, but exciting, release.

Neil is no stranger to the odd attempt to blow out his vocal chords in other projects. Biffy Clyro or his guest features with bands like Architects have seen the screeching unclean vocals that make up most of ‘Rivers of Heresy’ peppered into his usual Scottish-twanged vocals. However from the opening hammer blow that is ‘Harvest’, it’s evident the ante has been upped massively. While the effect of Neil’s drawn-out, high pitched frying screams on his throat will be debated on, their effect on the album is nothing short of demonic. It’s not just him, as Mike Vennart on guitars is just as responsible for the smash-mouth energy of each track. The chugging ‘Blusher’ draws so much of its force from the bass and rhythm guitars, that encase Neil’s screeches like a suit of armour. 

Dave Lombardo was never going to fall behind either. There’s tinges of his usual fast paced thrash style, but overall he avoids treading familiar territory; this is some of the most exciting drumming of his career in some time. ‘Tired, Aye?’ features no instrumentation below Neil and Vennart’s vocals other than Lombardo’s hypnotic drumline, an off-kilter but impressive display of all three’s talents. ‘Sons And Daughters’ has a White Stripes-like marching rhythm to its second half that ESB use to crank up the menace. ‘Dusty’ channels some raw Nine Inch Nails drums and wailing guitars in a slower than expected, but no less intense, piece.

All three contribute to the swirling madness of the album, but there’s still moments where the trio fuse  even more alternative styles into the mix. ‘Moi?’ sees a more stripped down, menacing bass-driven song where Neil returns to those melodic clean vocals he’s famous for, exploding back into a landslide chorus of shrieks on a hair trigger. ‘Stutter’ speeds things up an unholy amount while a sense of unease creeps in, the alien-like synths in the background, playing against the more traditional metal riffs throughout. ‘Palms of Hands’ channels the spirit of Rage Against The Machine in its guitar scratching as Lombardo goes full Slayer on drums, making for a weird fusion of 80’s thrash and 90’s alt rock. ‘The Looming’ feels like the closing hymn of a church service, the fuzzy guitars slowly breaking down while organ-like synths take over. This isn’t just an extreme metal album, rather it’s a sandbox for the three artists to mess around in. This could have easily lead to a poorly flowing album, but fortunately some pretty solid mixing and production means not only is this a great sounding record, but a cohesive one too.

Do not go into ‘Rivers of Heresy’ as a Biffy Clyro fan. Nor should you go into it as a Slayer fan hoping for some classic thrash metal. Go into it as a psychopath looking to put your headphones to their limits and do some damage to the furniture around you. It’s not an album that you’d expect from this unlikely trio, but the resultant chaos is uniquely their own, with Neil, Vennart and Lombardo’s own quirks layered amongst the sheer noise of the record. It’s hard to see where this project goes from here, whether this is a once off passion project or the start of something long term, but regardless, Empire State Bastard’s debut will delight anyone searching for something outside the box.

FIACHRA JOHNSTON

 

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