Album Review: Heathen - Empire of the Blind
Reviewed by Paul Hutchings
2020 has been a shitty year in nearly every aspect. One one glimmer of hope has been the steady stream of excellent music released. As we move into the last quarter, the stream is turning into a flood with album after album unleashed in a constant torrent of high quality. For thrash fans, 2020 has seen some fantastic releases, and for many old school fans, the news that Bay Area thrash legends Heathen would be releasing a new album was a cause for celebration (suitably socially distanced – of course!)
It’s certainly been some wait for the arrival of album number four. Ten years since ‘The Evolution of Chaos’, and over three decades since the debut release ‘Breaking the silence’, few records have been so wildly anticipated. Penned by guitarist and songwriter Kragen Lum, ‘Empire of the Blind’ warrants shouting from the rooftops; HEATHEN ARE BACK!!!
Ironically, both Lum and fellow shredder Lee Altus are victims of their own success. With over half of ‘Empire of the Blind’ demoed by in 2012 and two thirds written by 2014, their touring commitments with Exodus prevented further progress until 2019 when the band had enough of a break to complete the writing and recording. For Heathen devotees, the core of the band thankfully remains intact. Founders Altus and vocalist David White join the long standing Lum (who joined in 2007) are now joined by a new rhythm section in bassist Jason Mirza and drummer Jim DeMaria. With the pieces now in place, the time has finally come for the fourth album to be unleashed.
Bookended by acoustic intro and outro, ‘Empire of the Blind’ explodes into life with the ferocious ‘Blight’, a song that chillingly and all too relevantly references humans as the plague destroying the earth. A brutal thrashing beast, fans will already be familiar with the track which was released a while ago to positive acclaim. Instantly Heathen, there is melody, riffs, breakneck speed drumming and of course, David White’s powerfully clean vocals. Four and a half minutes in which any doubts about Heathen’s return are dispelled. Changes of tempo, classic thrash metal chants, wild virulent soloing and a hook that sinks deep. There should be a smile after listening to this.
Conceptually, Lum and band mates have created an album which is a comparison of modern society, focusing on the descent into life run by social media. How a nation can slip into complacency, via the persuasiveness of emotion. The title track emphasises the album’s themes, but also reflects some of the band’s triumphs and failures. It’s slower paced and heavier than the preceding number but carries the flagship anthem which underpins the whole album.
Whilst ‘Empire of the Blind’ certainly features enough thrashing madness to sate the appetites of the hi-top booted , the band also switch at times to a more traditional manner, with the heavy metal crunch of ‘Sun in My Hand’ and ‘Shrine of Apathy’ both songs that should stir the interest of those who may swerve around the heavier thrash, the latter demonstrating the wide sphere of influences that form Lum’s song writing. Interestingly, both tracks are more personal in nature than some of the wider social commentary that features elsewhere, such as the explosive closing song ‘The Gods Divide’, which considers the use of the masses as pawns by politicians. The fiery instrumental ‘A Fine Red Mist’ sees the band flexing their musical muscles in a different but no less welcome direction.
The entire package here is top drawer with plenty of detail and thought applied. Travis Smith has created the stunning album cover, with a multi-layered scene of desolation and an empire in its final throes. The production of the album is slick and sharp, with engineering, production, mixing and mastering by Christopher ‘Zeuss’ Harris with additional work by Lum. Of course, without the music this is all irrelevant. Thankfully, ‘Empire of the Blind’ meats all the expectations and more. Superbly performed, this is an album that should feature highly in the top albums of the year.
Empire of the Blind is released by Nuclear Blast on 18th September.