Sanctorum – Semper Fidelis (Auburn Fox Records, 21 March 2011)
Hello, friends. I have to tell you, I am beginning to write this review once more, with some amount of trepidation. That feeling has nothing to do with the album or the band in particular, but this is now the third time I’ve decided to sit down and write this, and the first two were cut short because I became otherwise distracted by some catastrophe. Well, maybe that’s too strong of a word, but in any case, I’ve experienced a couple of unfortunate mishaps, each of which had me preoccupied on those particular days. So I’m hoping the third time will be the charm, for this review of Semper Fidelis, which happens to be the third album from Colcestrian metal band Sanctorum (following 2008’s Ashes of Redemption and their 2006 debut The Heavens Shall Burn).
This latest album is actually almost a year old by now, although I’ve only had a copy of it for the past two months — I actually just discovered the band after I reviewed My Ruin‘s A Southern Revelation when it was released back in December. Right around that same time, I learned that the bands would be performing together on an extensive tour across the UK (which, incidentally, just concluded last night in Sanctorum’s hometown of Colchester).
Anyway I hope I haven’t already frightened you away by talking about my own bad luck, because believe me– though I might have had some problems getting the opportunity to actually write about this album, there’s been no shortage of chances to listen to it, which I have done many, many times over these two months. (And, I might add, with no harmful side effects!)
So, keep on reading and I’ll finally get a chance to share this music with you, that I have been meaning to do for so long!
So as I said, Semper Fidelis was released back in March of last year, coming soon after a line-up change saw half of the band replaced (original guitarist/ vocalist Aaron Sly and drummer Matt Alston have been joined by new lead guitarist Al Commons and bassist Adam Paterson. From what I’ve read, the band wanted to expand their songwriting to explore new sonic and dynamic territory and push the boundaries of the sounds, while at the same time being able to capture the raw power and fury with a live feeling. Without hearing their earlier albums, I don’t have a reference point for comparison, but based solely on what they are presenting here, I’d have to say they achieved both of these quite well.
From the very beginning, a wide range of dynamics and an atmosphere of grandness is on display. Opening track “Semper Fidelis” introduces the album with an epicness of epic proportion, building tension by adding the voices of a female choir’s soaring above heavy guitar chords that slowly bludgeon the listener into giving his (or her) complete and undivided attention to see what’s coming next.
And what happens next is that the band explode into a barrage of thrashy aggression that begins with “Rise of the Underdog” — a song that aurally as well as lyrically serving notice that Sanctorum are here to kick some ass — and continues most of the way through the remaining eleven songs. Along the way we are treated to plenty of thrashy riffs (“Severed” has some great ones), lots of excellent guitar solos (“Paradigm” features one of exceptional quality; near the end of “Empty Glass” is a moment that resembles the work of Kirk Hammett), and an extra-large serving of near-death metal growls and snarls (check out “Burn Away” for some nice, misanthropic lyrics).
However, the album has more to offer than just anger and aggression; there are a number of songs that would qualify as melo-death (“Cast Aside,” for example), and a few others that incorporate some melodic tendencies and clean singing among the deathly metallic parts (“Dying Breed” fits this bill, and in addition, I’d say this song would be an excellent example of what some people refer to as NWOAHM — ironic, I suppose, coming from a British metal band!). As far as the clean vocals go, mostly they sound pretty decent, but in one song (“Severed”) you’ll find really the only low point of the album, to me: in the chorus (which happens about three times) there is a bit of singing that brings to mind P.O.D. or some other similarly atrocious band. The rest of that song is pretty brutal and as I mentioned earlier it has some awesome riffing; it’s just unfortunate that I can’t get over that mental connection with the sound of that one dude’s voice. Anyway, further variety is provided by the song “Empty Glass,” which is straight-up ballady; slower, cleaner, softer, and much more introspective. Clean vocals almost through the entire song, although it does kick into a heavier gear toward the end (with that guitar solo I mentioned earlier).
Finally, the album closes with “Crown of Scars,” which actually starts out with some lofty NWOBHM guitar licks, before settling into more melodeathy thrashiness, bringing back some clean vox somewhere around the middle. A definite highlight, though, is the last three minutes of song, where it picks up the pace a bit and amps up the excitement level with hurriedly chugging guitar riffs stacked upon each other; especially approaching the last minute, the intensity keeps increasing, and at the very end they reintroduce some of the choir singing from the intro track, bringing the album full circle, finishing at about the same level of epicness that was where we had started from.