Possessor - City built with skulls 4/5

Reviewed: 7-1-12





Tracklist:

1. Fire from hell
2. Taste the blade
3. Heavy metal underground
4. City built with skulls
5. Hammer and nails
6. Hellbound drifters
7. Champions of chaos
8. Slicer
9. Reaper of death
10. Metal meltdown


It’s an interesting time to be a thrash metal devotee. The retrothrash explosion of a few years ago has predictably abated somewhat, yet it seems that there are still scads of new thrash-minded zombie acts crawling from the sewers, dripping with nuclear waste and ready to bash in the skulls of unsuspecting poseurs wherever they may be found. (Isn’t that exactly what the cover art of this CD depicts?) That’s all well and good, yet finding quality younger bands in this genre has become more elusive and frustrating than ever. This is precisely why it is so exhilarating to come across a debut CD like Possessor’s ‘City built with skulls’, newly released on neck-snapping Irish specialty label Slaney Records (also the label home of U.S. underground metal heroes Vindicator and Vanlade, among others). When I received the parcel in the mail, all I knew about Possessor was that they are from Virginia and that they’ve been booked to play the prestigious Warriors of Metal V Festival in Ohio at the end of the month.

Make no mistake: Possessor are an old-school thrash band, through and through. But they excel at this style, and offer a slightly different take on the tried’n’true sound than their legions of mostly undifferentiated, unwashed, denim-and-hightop-clad peers. In particular, Possessor manage to capture the 80s vibe more faithfully than most. In the riffing department, guitarists Kevin Chappell and Mike Martin rarely fall into the trap of playing brutal for brutality’s sake, or playing fast for speed’s sake. Instead, they’ve focused on crafting memorable riffs that blend raw heaviness with just enough melody to make them stick, kind of like what Exciter did during the ‘Heavy metal maniac’ through ‘Long live the loud’ days. Another good comparison would be Slayer, but during the ‘Show no mercy’ period rather than the more-celebrated ‘Reign in blood’ era. So many younger thrash bands overlook the catchiness aspect of classic thrash in their single-minded rush to bombard the listener with as much speed and heaviness as possible. Not Possessor. Meanwhile, vocalist Robbie Rainey is unusual in that he offers something of a chameleonic delivery from song to song, and even within songs. To be sure, his default mode of singing is a fairly nondescript raspy sneer, but Rainey does so much more. Occasionally, he punctuates the beginning or end of his vocal lines by abruptly shifting into a high-pitched falsetto wail (kinda like what Tom Araya used to do in Slayer’s early days, or even like early Dan Beehler, to stick to the Exciter theme). On other songs, he adopts a nearly traditional metal vocal style (check out the strong clean singing in “Champions of chaos” and “City built with skulls”). The result is that in a sea of thrash bands with faceless, interchangeable lead singers, Rainey stands out in a good way, adding his personal flair to the songs. To these battered and abused eardrums, the combination of catchy, crunchy thrash riffs with unique and interesting vocals works marvelously to set Possessor apart.

None of this should be construed as an indication that Possessor is some kind of watered-down wimpy facsimile of what thrash metal should be. Nosirree, Bob. Those of us who lived through the glorious 80s thrash movement well recall that melody and charismatic vocalists were just as much a hallmark of the genre as the palm-muted riffs, double-bass beatdowns, and gang-shouted backing vocals. Katon DePena sounded nothing like Russ Anderson, who sounded nothing like Mark Osegueda or David Godfrey-White or Dan Beehler, but each was an instantly recognizable calling card of their bands, injecting charisma and personality into what might otherwise be all-out mayhem and speed. That element has largely been forgotten by today’s newer thrash bands, many of whom figure that slapping a generic field-issue angry bark over the riffs is good enough. Same goes for hooks. Cue up almost any mid-80s Bay Area thrash record on ye olde turntable and you’ll hear hooks – yes, real bona fide hooks – in the songs. Possessor have them too, by the boatload, as songs like “Taste the blade” and “Reaper of death” are unflinchingly melodic in addition to being uncompromisingly crushing. The titular song, “City built with skulls”, is a perfect union of thrash, old-fashioned speed metal and even power metal. Brilliant!

If I sound jazzed about ‘City built with skulls’, it’s because I am. This CD offers a unique, refreshing spin on a thrash metal genre that has been beaten to death in recent years. Possessor capture the essence of what made early Bay Area thrash so exciting and intoxicating. They still could use some work and refinement in fusing their core thrash sound with their melodic elements, as sometimes the juxtaposition feels a bit forced. Overall, however, I think Possessor are poised to rise to the top in a crowded retrothrash scene and make a name for themselves. I can scarcely wait to see them tear up the stage at Warriors of Metal V.



KIT




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