While it may have been easier to ride the nostalgia train like so many of his NWOBHM contemporaries, Holocaust’s John Mortimer has never shown a proclivity for looking back. The Scottish native has always been a trailblazer in metal circles, from the early days of NWOBHM, as demonstrated on 1981’s groundbreaking release The Nightcomers. In the decades that followed, Mortimer and the Holocaust moniker have become synonymous with unpredictable cross-pollinations of heaviness from the dissonant flavors of 1989’s Hypnosis of Birds to the ambitious, progressive hues of 90’s fare like Covenant. The man (and the band) seem incapable of standing still. Under his leather and studs lurks the brain of a white-haired mad scientist in a radiation suit, escaped from an institution to wreak havoc on the world with sonic experiments.
Stylistic fluctuations can be a natural by-product of lineup changes, and Holocaust has seen more than its fair share of both over four-plus decades of existence. The latest incarnation of the band is a trio, Mortimer handling vocals and guitar alongside bassist Mark McGrath and drummer Scott Wallace. The three have been exploring wyrd prog-metal back alleys together for several years, their first full-length 2015’s Predator, a challenging blend of 80’s-style power chords, doomy galloping segments, and Mortimer’s haunting vocal style. A grower scatter-shot with jarring moments, it seems clear at this point that Predator was a transitional record, because Elder Gods is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Just as the title suggests, the record explores a handful of ancient deities, running the full gamut from mythology to Christianity to demonology. It’s all fascinating history, but there’s so much to enjoy musically, it may take months to get to any kind of lyrical study. Mortimer is a deity in his own right when it comes to guitar prowess, coaxing a myriad of bell-like melodies, spellbinding drones, and miscellaneous murk from the instrument, all startlingly original and frankly mesmerizing. “Children of the Great Central Sun” takes off on a juddering rhythm, cymbals splashing as guitars alternate between groovy low-end riffing and shimmery oscillations that soar against gorgeously gloomy vocals. Instrumental “Ishtar” (named for a Mesopotamian Goddess) is a guitar exercise nothing short of stratospheric, melodies growing, shifting, swooning as drummer Wallace down-shifts into pounding double bass. The gothy shades of “Solaris” may be the record’s apogee, pulsing with murky hooks, tones disheveled and rocky like an overgrown cemetery, Mortimer dramatically crowing “Lucifer!” like the bastard son of Peter Murphy.
This is not music for a children’s birthday party. But for fans of eerie metal like In Solitude or dark NWOBHM like Ritual, Mortimer’s latest should scratch a very particular itch. Progressive without resorting to wankery, bleak without self-pity, and intelligent without excessive bravura, hats off to this trio for pulling out a winner – and just look at that album cover. Holocaust hits pay dirt again.