For a year supposedly prophesied by the ancient Mayans to herald the end of all existence, 2012 has been disappointingly doom-and-gloom free thus far. No ominous comets, no Biblical plagues -- not even a triple-digit heat wave yet.
Luckily, local doom/classic metal band Sanctus Bellum is ready to inject a little existential dread into our fine city's musical fabric before we all perish from an overabundance of optimism.
Sanctus' second LP, The Shining Path, dropped Tuesday with a heavy thud, chock full of early Sabbath-style riffage, twin NWOBHM guitar leads and haunted, howling vocals. The album is altogether chunkier and more challenging than the group's 2010 debut, Return to Dust, a fact that bassist and co-founded Ben Yaker chalks up to the smart addition of live guitarist Maurice Eggenschwiler to the recording mix.
The pairing of Eggenschwiler with six-stringer Jan Kimmel has not only doubled the thickness of Sanctus Bellum's deep, dank sound, but also catalyzed the group's creative chemistry.
"He and Jan can really play off of each other, and there are harmonies everywhere now," Yaker says. "I think, in a way, they kind of compete with each other in terms of the leads that they're trying to pull off. We wind up trading off solos, and it's made the songs actually a lot longer."
Sheer length has proved key to the evolution of the band's sound. Not just the track lengths, either, which do tend to stretch on like the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft. Just as crucial has been the increased length of time that Sanctus Bellum has spent getting inside one another's skin, as well as the lengthier gestation period of the songs that make up The Shining Path.
"We had more time with this record to let the songs kind of flesh out, you know?" Yaker says. "For the first record, we had the lineup working together for about four months or so before we went in and recorded it. It was the first six songs we wrote.
"The new songs, we've written over two years," he adds. "A lot of them we've been playing live for a long time, so we've been able to let them evolve that way. They've all been a lot more intricate."
That intricacy keeps The Shining Path from droning on or slipping into hypnotic repetition. The second track, "Vessel," gallops, then wallops. "Dumb Luck Divinity" features dueling guitar leads that bring to mind the possibility of Glenn Tipton joining Tony Iommi in Black Sabbath.
When the band rears back on songs like "Ephaniah," the album's closer, the charge is often led by Yaker's nimble bass playing. And no matter how high the guitars soar or how low to the ground they scrape, vocalist Justin Waggoner's Layne Staley-esque wail keeps even the most fantastic lyrics grounded in horrific reality.
One of Yaker's own fantasies became a reality last month when Sanctus Bellum was joined onstage by St. Vitus bandleader Scott "Wino" Weinrich for the Pentagram tune "Sign of the Wolf" when Sanctus opened for the doom metal über-legends at a Fitzgerald's tour stop.
Yaker's a bit of a Wino obsessive -- he's collected 22 full-lengths put out by the doom torchbearer's myriad musical projects (St. Vitus, the Obsessed, Shrinebuilder, etc., etc.) over the years.
"We actually went up to him across the street from Fitzgerald's, just getting' a drink, and chatted with him for a bit," Yaker says. "I just kind of asked him if he'd be interested in doing it, and he didn't say no! (laughs) So we wrote the words out for him and it sort of went from there.
"It was really cool of him to do -- It really was one of the cooler things, musically, that I've ever gotten to do," he said.
Sanctus Bellum will look to make a few new fond memories when the group plays its first gig since the new record's release this week at Milwaukee's Day of the Doomed II festival. The new material's official live debut in Houston is set for an album release show at Concert Pub North on July 21 with Malice.
"I think the idea is to play entire album front to back," Yaker said. "That's something we haven't really done. Even when our set was entirely songs from our first record, we never went and played the songs in order. I'd like to get it all out there."
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You'll want to have the new album's lyrics memorized by then, so head on over to the band's Web site to order The Shining Path now. Might not be a bad idea to give your dealer a call, too.
Sanctus Bellum plays the Day of the Doomed II festival in Milwaukee this weekend.