I first got into heavy metal when my friends introduced me to Metallica. It was unlike anything I had ever heard: fast, brutal, occasionally morbid, and always thrilling. The visceral and powerful nature of the music was addictive and somehow relieving, a treat to my tame ears, evoking angst, joy, and curiosity all at the same time.
VHÖL reminds me of those nostalgic formative years back when I was discovering all the great thrash and speed metal classics for the first time, enamored by the riffs, affronted by the lyrical content, and always digging the fucked up album covers with illustrations of nightmares. Deeper Than Sky could have been one of those albums. Its artwork is distinctively vintage thrash (a collaborative work between artist Brandon Duncan and the band’s guitarist, John Cobbett), and it gives the album an air of cosmic fear and psychedelia. And its opening moments — a fade-in on a wild shred solo — will instantly win over the heart of any metalhead.
Opener “The Desolate Damned” is ferocious and tightly composed, echoing the spacey prog thrash of Voivod as Cobbett fires off riff after riff. On top of that are the power metal howls of YOB’s Mike Scheidt. Though he doesn’t bust his falsetto scream out too often on Deeper Than Sky, it sure sounds cool when he does — a total throwback to old-school Priest and Mercyful Fate.
Considering VHÖL is a pseudo-supergroup, the musicianship and overall cohesion of the compositions on this record is shocking. Even if these guys don’t jam together or play live as often as most groups, their tightness here serves as a testament to their technical skill and pedigree. Scheidt is the force behind YOB; Cobbett and bassist Sigrid Sheie are in progressive metal band Hammers of Misfortune; virtuoso drummer Aesop Dekker joins in from Agalloch. VHÖL is a band built of journeyman — not to mention that Cobbett, Sheie, and Dekker were in a Pentagram cover band before starting VHÖL. The camaraderie can be heard in the songs, which spiral in bizarre directions.
The title cut takes the elements laid out in “The Desolate Damned” and stretches them into a 12-minute jam. Dekker lays down d-beats that, when combined with Cobbett’s shredding, recall the underappreciated brilliance of Japanese hardcore legends Death Side. Between rapid blasts of thrashing punk metal and Scheidt’s guttural snarls are somber dropouts where Cobbett exercises classical melodies and minor arpeggios. The sheer duration of the track is a tad drawn out, but these softer moments (sprinkled throughout the album) help pace VHÖL’s more enduring arrangements.
Even though there are crazy prog changeups and technicalities all over Deeper Than Sky, it never seems like the band is taking itself too seriously, and that sense of humor is the most charming thing about this record. “3AM” is a straight hardcore punk song about being up in the middle of the night, tormented by thoughts and unable to crash. “Paino” is a comically brilliant translation of an instrumental shred song played on piano instead of a guitar. The band sounds like they’re having fun, and humor is such a scarcity in the super serious realm of modern metal. Deeper Than Sky is fun to listen to, like the carefree thrash of old.
Essential Tracks: “The Desolate Damned”, “Deeper Than Sky”