Rock has Indeed Died, and It Now Hails the Void

The latest jolt to my generational sense of being is Memento Mori by Hail the Void. The album is exceptional, the kind of work that can take its place among the best, the very best, in the history of Heavy Metal. I’m not pulling my punches here, and I don’t give two shits if you think this is hyperbole: this release is a seismic event, and based on the reactions I’m seeing across the Stoner/Doom spectrum, this is an unabashed Album of the Year contender.

Plenty of reviewers are picking up on the awesomeness that is Hail the Void, and there are a lot of options if you want a track-by-track breakdown or other opinions:

Those are just a few, and there are more. There will be others. But this is my turn, man, so I’ll get on with it.

There have been quite a few albums that burned themselves into my memory when I first heard them. I still remember the first time I heard Rainbow Rising: It hit me like a sledgehammer, with the opening synths of Tarot Woman seducing me, entrancing me to embrace the glorious heaviness within. The bombast of Stargazer seals it as a singular, irreplicable achievement.

Then there was Ozzy’s Diary of a Mad Man in 1981. I like Blizzard of Oz well enough, but Diary was on a whole different level. The quality of the recording, the performances of the band, and the overall writing was a spectacular improvement over the first album. I was in awe of that album from start to finish, and to this day I think of it as the only Ozzy album that could hold its own against the best of Sabbath.

Elder’s Dead Roots Stirring is another example of a second album that simply crushes the first release. In this case, it takes about 30 seconds comparing the opening tracks to know that this is an entirely different beast. Even then, it barely hints at what was to come.

Kyuss’s Blues for the Red Sun is for me the most extreme example of this- the incredible 2nd album that destroys the first. If you listen to Wretch and compare it to Blues…, its no contest. It doesn’t even sound like the same band!

Which brings is to Memento Mori, or “remember, you must die.” What an incredible improvement over a fantastic debut. It has the feel of a band who know exactly who they are, who they want to be, and are totally cool with it. It opens with an intro track, which may be the closest thing to a questionable decision. For me, it works as a foreshadow of what’s to come and a brief moment for the listener to prepare themselves for the journey. It reminds me of a few Prog albums, and even the opening to Quadrophenia by the Who, with snippets of songs that set the stage. Not everyone will dig it, but it’s short and doesn’t detract too much from the flow.

From there, Momento Mori becomes a juggernaut of tone, pace, atmosphere and emotion. It caught, and kept, my attention. What comes up for me, everytime, is the depth of the whole thing. From back when I was a kid, this is Heavy Metal in the old and traditional sense of the term. It’s like all of the DNA from the 70’s through today is infused into this work. It harkens to a time when we didn’t have Thrash/Black/Death/Nu and all the other factions that make so much of heavy music tribal. Not that those styles are in any way represented. Quite the opposite: it’s as if those other forms didn’t exist, and Hail the Void isn’t trying to incorporate them.

They’ve tapped into what made Black Sabbath so special, without sounding overtly like them. They manage to arrange things in a similar way, though. For instance, one of the most enjoyable aspects is how the band and producer don’t always feel a need to double the guitar during solos. Dean Gustin handles the bottom end quite nicely, and there’s no need for a dubbed rhythm track every time. The bass is allowed to carry the rhythm parts, which really makes the solos stand out and give a sense of space to the song.

The drum work of Lucas McKinnon is more informed by Bill Ward than most heavy bands. He’s not just keeping time, but flowing with the main ideas in the song. Another drummer that comes to mind for me is Lee Kerslake, but with the confident power of Cozy Powell. It’s an impressive performance that’s recorded and mastered beautifully. Lucas engineering the production is an added benefit: dude knows what he’s going.

The song Serpens South, at the 3:50 mark, is great example of what I mean. It’s perfectly balanced between all three musicians. When I really listen to it, the arrangement is sparse: drums, bass, guitar. Each player adds just enough to keep it sounding huge, but it’s intelligence and craft that does it, not overdubs or tricks. You know…old school!

Then there’s the work of singer/guitarist Kirin Gudmundson. This guy is the kind of force of nature who could easily overpower the other two. Lucky for him, the same could be said of Lucas and Dean: this is a band of peers. Still, it’s Kirin’s performance that’s going stick out the most. And I do mean performance.

I’ve gotten used to vocals taking a back seat in most modern heavy metal. Too low in the mix, too growled and harsh to be intelligible, too bland to be exciting. On Memento Mori, the vocals are front and center, exploding into the soundstage. I admit, they’re obviously heavily produced and not exactly “natural” in the way that Sara from Messa presents her voice. But the sheer emotion and expression he brings to it overcomes that one drawback. Significantly. The voice is a fourth instrument, not an afterthought, and again the mix is expertly handled to deliver maximum effect.

Lastly, there’s the guitar playing, which is both reverential to the past and startlingly unique and contemporary. Wanna know where the guitar heroes of the future are? Right here. Whether it’s a simple backing chord in the chorus or an emotive lead, it doesn’t matter. If you love rock guitar, it’s a clinic.

I’m hearing the same things that other reviewers are hearing, from the Windhand/Haunted progressions and hypnotic pace of Talking to the Dead to the Elder-sounding guitar at 53 seconds into Serpen South. But they do it without blatantly copying anything, but instead pull if off like Miles Davis referencing the work of John Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix. They make it all their own, and it comes across as the work of far older and mature musicians.

These dudes are in their 20’s, for crying out loud! As far as I can tell, they’re Generation Z, which is mind-blowing at first. Then it makes sense: they have over 50 years of heavy music to listen to and absorb. And I swear to gawd, they’ve taken notes and perfected every single note.

This stands in stark contrast to the narrative you can find on almost every Classic Rock review and commentary on the internet, or in pieces that cover the musings of Gene Simmons and others of the “old guard” who can’t bare to let go of their precious glory days. Watching the latest, pointless feud between Roger Waters and David Gilmore does give credence to the idea that rock has died. U2 doing a Vegas residency is further proof.

Rock is indeed dead, and it now Hails the Void.

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