Still Like That Old-Time Proto-Death
Known for his relatively brief stint as the frontman of Judas Priest, Ohioan, Tim “Ripper” Owens (yes, you have to say “Ripper” every time) has enjoyed a pretty decent career since his big and unlikely break back in the ’90s. His resume points include a spot in Iced Earth, work with supreme maestro extraordinaire Yngwie Malmsteen, plus a few of personal, more traditional metal projects (e.g. Brainicide and Winter’s Bane). Aside from the great beer heist to which his bar–renamed Traveller’s Tavern in a recent episode of Jon Taffer’s Bar Rescue, no less–fell victim earlier this year, Owens has been doing alright for a guy that looks like a cross between Kevin James and Layne Staley.
If you feel like that was a lot of extraneous information all in the name of a mean joke, then strap the fuck in. Owen’s perplexingly-named supergroup Charred Walls of the Damned are a pack of battle-hardened metal vets with enough heavy history between them to fill several ancient, accursed tomes–or, you know, one overlong review. Their latest record, Creatures Watching Over the Dead, has the mix of old and new school heaviness to prove this fact. Bassist Steve DiGiorgio played with classic acts like Autopsy and Death and Obituary, frequently right alongside Charred Walls’ drummer Richard Christy, who garnered notoriety during his time with The Howard Stern Show. The group’s most curious inclusion is comparative youngster Jason Suecof, who had a significant hand in shaping the sound of metalcore and deathcore bands like Trivium, All That Remains and Job for a Cowboy from behind the mixing board–not to mention his irreverent parody project Crotchduster.
So what exactly do we get for all this heavy metal Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? Essentially, a two-way blend of epic, ever-ascending power metal and a spit-shined, slickly-produced version of the punishing death metal that Charred’s rhythm section helped pioneer, and Suecof then distilled for a new wave of American kiddies. Creatures Watching isn’t a direct descendant of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, but it does harken back to that ’80s sweet spot more gracefully and authentically than most other active metal groups. A lot of it comes down to the sheer, diaphragmatic force of power behind Owen’s wailing. His Dio-like, fist-clenched howls highlight the fact that, aside from a few fringe revivalists, no one really tries to sing in metal anymore. None of these young dudes ever seem to really go for it vocally the way the old-timers did. The operatic sensibilities that informed early metal were largely shorn during the grunge era, as the harsh vocals of extreme metal overtook the style that was once so heavily utilized in the hard rock and glam of yesteryear. It’s a bit of a shame, really.
But the indulgent, over-produced vocal layers of the chorus in “My Eyes” are enough to halt your nostalgia in its rose-colored tracks and remind you why the shift happened in the first place. Creatures Watching Over the Dead is downright corny in spots, and not in a way that’s contextually excusable, like old Judas Priest or Scorpions. Keep in mind that the musicianship of each track is objectively superb, stuffed with flashy, lightning-quick dual guitar harmonies and insane double kick patterns at every turn. DiGiorgio’s bass tracks are especially ornate. But Owen’s intense, unwavering vibrato mars Charred’s many moments of near-greatness by blanketing all of the details. Even when the group decides to take the tempo down a notch for the fittingly titled “Living in the Shadow of Yesterday,” Tim takes mid-paced somberness and ramps it up into a Queensrÿche-style ballad with one of his trademark, towering, pseudo-catchy choruses.
But don’t confuse ‘corny’ with ‘weak,’ or worse, ‘false.’ If anything, Charred Walls of the Damned are encumbered by a combination of their credibility, collective musical talent and strict adherence to what made extreme metal great in the first place. The intro of “The Soulless” is unmitigated, brutal death metal, no doubt penned by Christy or DiGiorgio. Blast beats give way to razor sharp thrash riffing and Suecof’s catchy and creative single note flourishes and arpeggios. The problem, however, is that these great passages are so often buried under The Ripper’s showman howl. “You’re just a puppet on a striiiiiiiiiing!” calls Owen to the heavens with a raised metal fist, while you strain to hear the subtleties and hard work that poor Jason put into the instrumentation.
Despite all their savvy metal know-how, Charred Walls of the Damned come off as a bunch of dinosaurs, and not in the cool Black Sabbath stoner rock way. Creatures Watching Over The Dead is little more than heavy dad rock with the shred factor turned to eleven and brought to its logical conclusion. But, hell, it’s perfectly-executed dad rock. And, let’s face it: this epic, full-throttle, hi-fi sound still has its contemporary champions. Devin Townsend still goes more balls-out than usual with the guitar theatrics and operatic vocals for his purposefully over-the-top Ziltoid saga. Brandon Small’s theatrical, maximalist sensibilities bleed into both Metalocalypse and his solo project Galaktikon, as well as having a former Death drummer in tow.
But those two examples highlight the fact that this modernist, monolithic, squeaky-clean sound is best suited for parody concept albums about outer space and violent cartoons about rich numbskulls. Charred Walls’ latest record is knowingly and deliberately overblown, but thankfully not bloated. Their songs are all pretty economical, length-wise. It’s worth your time if you love new Iron Maiden but need something a bit more meaty and aggressive. But, even then, you might look elsewhere.