Heathen - The evolution of chaos 4.5/5

Reviewed: 4-1-10


1. Intro
2. Dying season
3. Control by chaos
4. No stone unturned
5. Arrows of agony
6. Fade away
7. A hero's welcome
8. Undone
9. Bloodkult
10. Red tears of disgrace
11. Silent nothingness

The word "legendary" should not be tossed around lightly. But Heathen are deserving of the tag. Other Bay Area thrash acts may have enjoyed much greater notoriety and commercial success in the late-80s and early-90s, but none were better than Heathen. In fact, I'd rank Heathen's 1987 and 1991 CDs, 'Breaking the silence' and 'Victims of deception', respectively, at or near the top of any thrash/speed metal hierarchy. Heathen masterfully combined that ferocious adrenaline-pumping speed riffing of early Exodus with the sublime hooky musicality of 'Master of puppets'-era Metallica, along with adventuresome songwriting packed with unexpected twists and turns, all topped off by the melodic but still aggressive vocals of David White. Alas, the brightest flame burns twice as fast, and Heathen vanished shortly after the 'Victims...' CD, presumably never to be heard from again. Guitarist/mainman Lee Altus reformed the band in the early-2000s with 80% of the 'Victims...' line-up (with only axeman Doug Piercy being AWOL), and the promise of new Heathen material seemed tantalizingly close. An electrifying 3-song demo in 2005 stoked the flames even further, but it wasn't until early 2010 that the long-awaited promise was fulfilled with the release of Heathen's third full-length CD, albeit with a couple more personnel changes in the interim.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you already know that 'The evolution of chaos' has garnered rave reviews from all corners of the Internet heavy metal community. Well, throw another log on the fire, Mildred, because this one's no different. Simply put, this CD is the logical continuation of everything that made 'Breaking...' and 'Victims...' so astonishing, without falling into the dreaded stagnant trap of self-plagiarism. The razor-sharp speed-metal riffage, the mind-blowing musicianship, the deft melodic sensibility, and the no-holds-barred kamikaze songwriting are fully intact. The guitar duo of Lee Altus and newcomer Kragen Lum (Psychosis/Prototype) put on a clinic of thrash metal guitar wizardry, both in the rhythm department and in the searing leads. The ravages of time may have diminished the high end of David White's golden voice, but honestly, he's never sounded better, singing with full power and emotion in a way that no other Bay Area vocalist ever did or ever could. And the production and mixing jobs are totally professional, totally crushing. This is the way thrash/speed metal should sound: Crunchy without being brutal, polished without being soulless. Heathen captures the perfect balance, managing to sound firmly rooted in the spirit of the 80s Bay Area thrash movement without coming across like a cheap retro novelty act, a bunch of uninspired over-the-hill guys cashing in on past glories, or a macho posturing modern tough-guy thrash band.

None of this is to say that 'The evolution of chaos' is an easy listening metal CD. To the contrary, it is quite dense and challenging. The 10 songs (plus intro) span a staggering 68 minutes, with all tracks save "Bloodkult" clocking in at longer than 5-1/2 minutes, and the longest ("No stone unturned") tipping the scales at a hefty 11 minutes. Nor are these simple verse/chorus songs in structure. Within most of the tracks, there are lengthy instrumental passages, significant tempo shifts, and harmonic themes and choruses that are not milked to death and sometimes are not repeated at all. The amazing part is that the songwriting never feels forced or contrived. Heathen have given these songs room to breathe, and have allowed them to expand and morph as much as necessary to reach fruition. The pieces fit together seamlessly, and each song is a cohesive whole notwithstanding the pervasive ebb-and-flow dynamics. You want highlights? They're everywhere. The 3 tracks from the 2005 demo ("Dying season", "Arrows of agony", and the slightly retitled "Silent nothingness") are perhaps the most immediate of the bunch, owing as much to their past familiarity as their superlative caliber, and the band have wisely dispersed them in the running order as tracks 2, 5 and 11 to balance out the pacing. The pair of epic tracks ("No stone unturned" and "Red tears of disgrace") are both obvious standouts, the former for its sheer length and the latter for its expertly crafted build up from gentle beginning to frenzied speed workout. The Lum-penned "Control by chaos" shifts effortlessly between midtempo and speed glorious speed, and "Bloodkult" works brilliantly as a concise, conventional thrash number. Overall, however, the quality remains at a consistently top-notch level.

Honestly, I have just a couple of reservations about 'The evolution of chaos'. As mentioned, the playtime is 68 minutes and the songs are complex to the point of verging on progressive. I find myself exhausted by the time the last notes of "Silent nothingness" ring out, and some listeners may not have the discipline or the attention span to absorb this sprawling CD at one sitting. And the balladesque song, "A hero's welcome", will be controversial both for its arguably patriotic-leaning lyrics (always a risky proposition in this global metal community) and its laid-back feel that owes more to Thin Lizzy than to 'Bonded by blood'. It just seems a bit out of place here, though it's a fine track and quite enjoyable in its own right. But I understand from interviews that Altus and White are particularly fond of the track, so if they want to include it on their CD, who am I to argue?

At the end of the day, 'The evolution of chaos' is absolutely mandatory listening for anyone who enjoys the heavy metal art form. It is a shining example of a reunion done right, one that was executed patiently and meticulously rather than hastily and sloppily, and one that adds to rather than tarnishes Heathen's pristine legacy. It is a compelling statement by a vibrant band that, 23 years after the release of its debut CD, still has something to say. And it is proof positive that thrash metal can sound every bit as fresh, intoxicating and exciting in 2010 as it did back in those halcyon days when the Bay Area scene was true and pure and the world revolved around CDs like 'Oppressing the masses', 'Forbidden evil', 'Pleasures of the flesh' and 'The ultra-violence'.




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