I really hate the “shuffle” button. There’s no better way to neuter the potency of a song than to strip it away from its intended context. A good album with thoughtful sequencing can result in a listening experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s why I wince at the thought of innocent people who unknowingly victimize themselves by listening on devices that randomly select songs. The practice is so prevalent that many artists pump out songs with little regard to how they will play out in an album setting.
Pile of Priests has come forth with a new melodic death metal release that honors the album format listening experience. The self-titled album “is a conceptual story that takes place centuries ago in a fictional universe not unlike our own.” Basically, the songs take you through a complete story regarding an exiled prince ruled by a deranged king. The prince engages a sorceress to take out the king and avenge the murder of a princess. If you like fantasy themes embedded in your metal, this will be right up your alley.
This is not a mere collection of songs that happened to be written or recorded first. The band obviously put in a lot of time and attention into writing an album that demands uninterrupted listening from beginning to end. I applaud the effort, even if it doesn’t consistently work here.
The album starts out with an introductory track comprised only of a lone piano. If you’ve watched HBO’s Westworld, the opening credit sequence music has a similar vibe. It sounds great and foreshadows the album theme nicely.
The first proper track, “The Aversion,” roars to life when the piano stops. The downtuned riffs are catchy and loaded with hooks. Low timbre death metal vocals complement this nicely. Evan Salvador handles vocals and guitar on this album, in addition to being the primary songwriter. “Death of the Paragon” follows with an extended clean guitar intro and spoken word section that furthers the album’s storytelling concept. The guitar solo on this song, like many others, is melodic and tasteful; perhaps a little tame, but very enjoyable.
The high point for me is at the album’s midpoint, with “Exile Unto Divination.” Patrick Leyn’s fretless bass sounds remarkable and complements the songs nicely. This track seems ready made to get moshers motivated to circle up. The melodic guitar solos are excellent.
On “Conjunction of Souls” and “The Restitution,” guest vocalist Adrienne Cowan steps in to add some variety. You may recognize her from her main project, Seven Spires, and her time on the road with Avantasia. Cowan is one of those unicorns in the scene who can handle the rich, operatic vocals as well as she can lay down the Cookie Monster screams.
While this album is great in concept, it hits a little too squarely on the nose at some points. The intended high point here is probably the two-track sequence of “The Threshold” and “Deus Delenda Est.” The former is an instrumental featuring some wonderful fretless bass lines; a welcome breather and mood-setter. But the latter song is so cheesy that I became unduly concerned that someone would walk in the room and misinterpret what I was doing in here by myself. Between the spoken word passages and unintentionally campy riffs, it feels more like you are being reminded that a story is being told than actually hearing one play out. This is the part of the movie where the “everyman” hero overcomes some challenge to become worthy to take on the final enemy boss. It feels unearned.
Thankfully, that discomfort is brushed aside by the album’s ripper: “Bloodstained Citadel.” The hero, having demonstrated his worthiness, races through the battlefield to complete his quest. There are some wonderful melodic riffs here that project the scope of the adventure.
The album closes out with a nearly nine-minute-long epic, “The Restitution.” Cowan lays down some clean, operatic vocals for the first couple of minutes while the band kicks in with some progressive riffs. This was another section that felt cheesy to me, but it’s still consistent with the whole storytelling theme. The return of Salvador’s vocals restores the power and urgency, but an underwhelming selection of basic riffs prevent the track from fulfilling its epic intent.
Pile of Priests hails from Denver, Colorado – a hotbed of modern metal activity (Blood Incantation, Khemmis, Necropanther, Havok, and Vale of Pnath all hail from there). In addition to Salvador (vocals and guitar) and Leyn (bass), Evan Knight rounds out the three piece on drums. This is the band’s second album, which also follows two EPs.
This album offers a lot to like. The concept invites the listener to put away all distractions and pay attention for the album’s entirety. There are great guitar solos and fretless bass lines throughout, and Salvador’s vocals really suit this type of music. The album cover art, which features a cathedral littered with corpses is outstanding even if it doesn’t really seem to match the album’s storyline.
That said, the album suffers under the weight of its epic goals, often venturing into unintentionally campy territory that takes you out of the moment. The guest vocals are well executed, but can be somewhat distracting. Things get a little uneven in the middle and at the end, when some faster or more intense riffing could have kept the momentum going better than the slower, groove riffs that pervade here. Though if you are really into fantasy storytelling (and if you are, I highly recommend Necropanther’s The Doomed City for a stunning example of a death metal story concept album), this could be a feature and not a bug.
Pile of Priests is available on CD and digital distributors, through Rockshots Records’ imprint, Extreme Metal Music.
Favorite Songs: “Exile Unto Divination” and “Bloodstained Citadel”
Release Date: 5/22/2020
Check out our other blogs & reviews!