On paper, blackened thrash sounds like the perfect combination of two extreme genres. Infusing black metal’s subject matter, evil tone and often ludicrous speeds with thrash’s signature d-beat patterns, sudden breaks, and extended guitar sections should make for an ear-disintegrating amalgamation that leaves necks sore and churches in ruin. Bands including Aura Noir, Desaster, and Destroyer 666 have been keeping the sub genre’s anti-Christian flame burning since its comeuppance in the late-90s (a time when black metal’s second wave was beginning to dissipate). Further beneath them still are bands such as Finland’s own Urn, whom, after a long period of silence, are finally back on the scene with a new lineup and their first release in nine years. So how does The Burning (2017) compare to the band’s previous ventures?
Well, the short answer is that it is significantly better; the long answer requires a little bit of explaining.
While I do not think I can overstate how much of an improvement The Burning is over everything else Urn has done in the past, which has ranged from subpar to mediocre at best. Their 2001 debut, 666 Megatons delivers a payload about as generic as its title suggests, and its two follow ups, Dawn of the Devastation and Soul Destroyers do not fair any better. I will not mislead you: though a fun listen for its own sake, it is a less than exemplary record of its respective genre. There are flashes of the true intensity that this reinvigorated lineup - still fronted by ex-Barathrum guitarist and sole original member, Sulphur - can achieve scattered about, but few moments that stick out in the long run, coupled with a mid-tempo slump towards the album’s back half, will leave you with little reason to want to return.
Things get off on the same foot every Urn release has so far with some kind of creepy, pseudo-atmospheric intro, here in the form of “Resurrection.” A simple, throwaway riff is overlapped with the sounds of crackling fire and effeminate moaning, by the numbers stuff, before drums creep in and slowly amp the tempo up towards what will become the album’s opener, and undoubted standout track, “Celestial Light,” which I have to say is probably the most intense fireball of hatred that Urn have dished out over their entire career. Its opening tremolo riff, bouncing about the fretboard with machinelike precision, is downright terrifying, and the violent blast beating that follows closely behind will form blisters on your hands just from listening to it. The track careens between several riffs of this punishing variety and a more headbanging-friendly, triplet-based groove for its first verse before the band’s new guitarist, Axeleratorr (get it?) dives in to show off his chops with a beautiful, soaring guitar solo, embodying all you could want in a band member’s introduction. He doesn’t allot too much shred time, thus taking away from the song’s overall effectiveness, but just gets in there and lets you know that he means business with one ripping burst of aggression straight from the depths of Hell. The song finishes in good form, thrashing until the end, and leaves you expecting the year’s next black metal sleeper hit with baited breath before the follow up song begins, and the reality of what this album will be sets in.
“Hail the King” (featuring a decidedly weak, chanting chorus) and “Morbid Black Sorrow,” despite some cool riffs in that fuzzed out Finnish guitar tone on the latter, seem happy to commit to a rather generic, mid-paced, angst-fueled thrash sound that feels like a diet version of the band you heard barely two songs ago, and this theme is sported across most of the record’s remaining thirty-plus minutes of playing. The majority of The Burning falls under what you might call modernized Venom-worship; it is faster and more technically proficient than the aforementioned band, but its run-of-the-mill thrashiness and dark subject matter breed the same effect, the problem being that said thrashiness is here backed by forgettable riffs and uninteresting song direction. The only constant joy to hear is Axeleratorr’s lead guitar, which stands out from the rest of the album’s undifferentiated sound with sinister, shredding scale runs, bends, and divebombs, adding considerable depth where it would otherwise be lost.
After passing over three more songs (“Sons of the Northern Star”, “Nocturnal Demons”, and “Wolves of Radiation”) that all adhere to the last paragraph’s description, the record reaches its next standout track, “All Will End in Fire,” which arrives with a sharp barrage of power chords spiraling all around before being joined by high-pitched lead guitar wailing, and catapults into a fast, incendiary verse followed by the same kind of anthemic chorus featured earlier on “Hail the King” - except that it actually works this time. The chanting of the song’s name is a thrash metal cliche as old as the genre itself (see: “Hit the Lights”) but paired with the chorus’s slower, meaty guitar riff and the song’s dynamic lead melodies, it creates a much more natural flow than the other named song and I am sure it will become a crowd favorite at shows.
The album finally closes with an unexpectedly melodic exchange in its great title track. Still embracing the middling tempo that much of this record does, “The Burning” switches things up with almost folky melodies and backing vocals, as well as gradually progressing towards a faster pace to end on, creating an appropriate climax for the first album from a band in such a long span of time. Its vibe is more mysterious than aggressive, and it would have been nice to hear Urn try to experiment with this sound a little more, since they do it a surprising amount of justice here.
Ultimately, no matter how hard one may try to dissect this record, a band that has been around as long as Urn know their audience, and they know what sound they want to go for - which is an admirable trait that any successful band should have - but it still can’t save The Burning from being little more than a passable black/thrash experience. The couple flares of greatness that lie within show a band with a lot of fire left in them, and one can only hope that maybe next time Urn will craft an album worthy of a band with such a kickass logo.
The Burning was released on 7/28/2017 through Iron Bonehead Productions. It can be purchased digitally, or on CD and vinyl formats from the label’s Bandcamp page.