Argus - Beyond the martyrs 4.5/5

Reviewed: 12-1-13


1. By endurance we conquer
2. No peace beyond the line
3. The hands of time are bleeding
4. Trinity
5. Four candles burning
6. The coward’s path
7. Cast out all raging spirits
8. Beyond the martyrs

It’s always gratifying to watch a band grow and mature and hone their sound right before your very eyes. Such has been the case with Pittsburgh’s Argus. The quintet’s progression from their 2009 debut to 2011’s ‘Boldly stride the doomed’ to 2013’s ‘Beyond the martyrs’ has been slow but steady, gradual but inexorable. Argus have never changed their sound, but they have refined it, tweaked it, and I daresay, even perfected it during the span of these 3 CDs.

At its core, Argus’s music has always been about the balancing of doom metal elements and traditional metal elements. In that sense, they are somewhat akin to Sweden’s Grand Magus in terms of stylistic territory. A principal difference is that while the single-axe Grand Magus take their doom metal cues predominantly from the Candlemass school, Argus are more grounded in the twin-guitar harmonic doom of early Trouble. And Grand Magus display a faint European metal sheen that the earthier, grittier Argus do not now and never have had. Perhaps ‘Beyond the martyr’ tips the balance a bit more towards classic metal than previous Argus output, as evidenced by the likes of the Iron Maiden/Pharaoh inflected “Cast out all raging spirits”, the Steel Prophet-like “Four candles burning”, and the relentlessly marching “By endurance we conquer”, none of which would ever be confused with doom. That said, a leaden weight of doom pervades tracks such as “The hands of time are bleeding” and especially “Trinity”. To my ears, the most extraordinary tune on display is the 7-minute “The coward’s path”, which begins with a somber harmonized guitar intro and a monumental Iommi riff, then segues into a quiet passage with crooned vocals over gently picked guitar, from which the song slowly and magnificently builds into an exhilarating sprint towards the finish line. Wow.

For lyrics aficionados, Argus have once again presented a nuanced and fascinating treasure trove of topics and moods. Opener “By endurance we conquer” tells the historical tale of the sinking of the vessel Endurance during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917 led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, and the ensuing bold (and ultimately successful) efforts undertaken by Shackleton and 5 intrepid crewmembers via the lifeboat James Caird to rescue their remaining 22 colleagues. The song title is a clever play on words, given both the name of the vessel and the indomitable spirit of the rescuers. “Trinity” references the famous quotation of one of the Manhattan Project physicists responsible for bring the atomic bomb to humanity, to-wit: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of words.” At the end of the song, the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s recorded quotation eerily plays out as the melancholy dirge fades away, until only the voice remains. By contrast, “Four candles burning” is much more personal, with singer Butch Balich crediting his children (the metaphorical candles) for guiding his path when “this darkened world is collapsing on me” and “I fear I have not the strength to return from hell’s path.” Undying love, indeed.

A word about individual band members’ performances is appropriate. The spotlight shines brightest on the guitars of Erik Johnson and Jason Mucio, who have outdone themselves in terms of riffs, harmonies and leads. Not a single note appears wasted or out of place, and these guys compare favorably to even the vaunted Wartell/Franklin duo in Trouble. The rhythm section of bassist Andy Ramage and drummer Kevin Latchaw holds everything together and appears equally adept at handling lethargic and galloping tempos alike. Indeed, that locked-in Ramage/Latchaw combo supplies the power that skillfully drives these songs forward. As for vocalist Butch Balich, honestly the guy just keeps getting better and better. Sure, his range is limited and he kind of shouts, but he has developed a real talent for conveying emotion and melody in a manner that is perfectly suited to Argus. I can’t imagine anyone else singing these songs. And as on Argus’s previous CDs, studio whiz Dave Watson (guitarist in Icarus Witch) has done a fantastic job capturing the power, majesty and musicality of Argus, and even penned/played the Quorthon-vibed guitar intro to “By endurance we conquer”.

In the final analysis, ‘Beyond the martyrs’ cements Argus’s place of honor amongst the U.S. metal elite. This band is delivering at a ridiculously high level. ‘Beyond the martyrs’ distills all the awesomeness of Argus into a compact 8-song, 42-minute package. Doom mavens and classic metalheads alike owe it to themselves to check out this CD, pronto. Oh, and nevermind the colorful but somewhat misleading cover art, which looks like something more suited for a stoner act or a grind band. I know Argus loves Brad Moore’s artwork (which has graced each of their CDs), and he does give them a unique look, but I wonder how many prospective listeners get turned away by a simple glimpse at the cover art and assuming Argus are something they are not. I beseech you, don’t make that mistake with ‘Beyond the martyrs’. If you do, you’ll be missing out on one of the finest CDs of 2013.




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