THE DEMO CORNER
April 24, 2010
Thrash metal is a cornerstone of American heavy metal. Along with the Floridian death metal scene, we can lay claim to the thrash scene that originated and flourished in the Bay area in the early 1980’s. Over the years the same scene became watered down with uninspired, tired bands that seemed content to just put out mediocre inanities posing as music with little regard for the quality of the songs.
In the last decade or so, however, there has been a resurgence of thrash metal of high caliber, mostly from Brazil and other South American countries. While it has been wonderful to see this come back with a vengeance, the American bands flexing their collective thrash muscles have been few and far between.
Judgment Hammer, four level-headed guys from Montana, is hoping to set that track back in the right direction. Releasing its first full-length titled Arbiter of Fate in November of 2009, the band has managed to capture the mid-eighties sound so insanely perfectly it can be both frightening and exciting. Consisting of vocalist/guitarist Jared Kiess, fellow guitarist Aaron Gericke, Dustin Fugere on bass and Sid La Tray drumming, the band has picked up where Metallica left off with Master of Puppets back in 1987. In the long run, Arbiter of Fate can be the very next step in bringing a solid past back to life for the modern fan base.
When I think of metal music, Montana isn’t exactly the area I have in mind, and the scene there isn’t exactly too happening at present. “The scene here in Montana really isn’t that great,” Sid commented. “[It’s] that, or we just don’t advertise enough.” I’ve a feeling that they’ll be putting Montana on the metal map soon enough. The album is something I feel could have been the natural successor to Puppets, which Aaron immediately put into perspective for me:
I think that, production aside, ...And Justice For All is Metallica's best album so I don’t think that we, or almost any other band, will ever release an album of that caliber. So when our album is said to be what Metallica should have done instead of …And Justice For All it is definitely a compliment, but all we tried to do is make the best album we could, and that is what we will continue to do.
Originally formed as The Four Horsemen back in 2004, the band opted for a name change in 2009 and sealed the deal with the addition of Sid on drums, setting the stage for the Arbiter album. I immediately thought the Four Horsemen was a proverbial nod to Metallica, and according to Aaron they would have kept it if not for the plethora of other bands using the same moniker. “Judgment Hammer, however, is an original and more powerful name,” he adds. So with the history of thrash arming them, these guys set out to put their mark on the American metal scene and created what I honestly feel is one of the best thrash records to emerge from the United States in the last few years.
The music on Arbiter of Fate is a hark back to the era when Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer and Testament were putting bands like Ozzy, KISS, even the mighty Judas Priest in their proper places; Ozzy’s hair was poofed to the hilt like a blonde girl’s bad high school photo, and here was Metallica blowing him off the stage every night they opened for him on the Puppets tour. This metal was cutting edge, fast, obstreperous music that really sent parents reeling. It was also honest, void of glam or flash, and attacked social issues and other dark societal elements, drifting away from the fantastical topics that bands like Priest and Dio might have espoused during this period. It became cerebral, intelligent music that made one think and delve deeper into one’s self. Jared was very matter-of-fact when I inquired about his topical exploration:
Our lyrics typically take a metaphorical form, relating a broader concept such as the blitzkrieg in WWII, the criminal justice system, a biblical story, or an ethical dilemma to a more particular situation in life or on stage. The song ‘Judgment Hammer,’ for example, commingles the idea of thrash metal and the rule of law to satirically demonstrate the idea of thrash acting like a “hammer” which pounds down inferior genres. We do, however, have some more serious songs which, among other things, defend the founding, advocate personal liberty, and, most importantly… have no lyrics!
As a fan who was fortunate enough to live through the first explosion in the early and mid-eighties, for me it’s like a trip back to a time when the scene meant something to the bands. You have to care about metal music to play it and be successful; this isn’t American Idol, where you work minimally and get a million-dollar contract without paying your dues. You love the genre enough to make it your home and you take care of your home by putting out honest music you believe in and want other people to believe in. That’s how it’s supposed to work, and Judgment Hammer is making it work by giving you honest music that is exemplary and well-structured from the very masters that influenced them. Dustin remarked, “I vividly remember listening to Iron Maiden for the first time and that half way through the first song they were my favorite band, still are for that matter. After that it was Judas Priest, some Master of Puppets, and it’s pretty much just gone from there. I always love finding new music and the more I find and hear about the more I realize how much is still out there.”
For Jared, his list is comprised of a similar ilk as he was set on obtaining “every classic thrash metal album [he] could find…[the] first four Metallica albums, Vendetta - Go and Live...Stay and Die, Vio-Lence - Eternal Nightmare, Testament - The Legacy, Megadeth - Peace Sells, Death Angel - The Ultra Violence, Annihilator - Alice in Hell, Anthrax - Among the Living, Deathrow - Raging Steel, and Flotsam and Jetsam - Doomsday for the Deceiver.” The influences are evident throughout the album, which is an absolute must-have if you’re a thrash, speed, or even traditional heavy metal fan.
What amazes me about this band is the youth behind them. They’re not nearly kids, and for a younger band to adopt and emulate the current thrash movement so accurately without having lived through its initial flurry is incredible. It leaves hope that the future of heavy metal, especially in the States, is in some capable hands when their collective heads are in the right place. They have no delusions about an industry that can swallow you whole if you’re not careful, but times have changed for the artist, as Dustin pointed out when I asked him about the future of metal and how he sees it:
As far as the future of metal goes, I have some high hopes for it. I mean they’re always going to be pumping out the commercial shit, that’s never going to stop, but bands you wouldn’t expect to be getting any attention are starting to receive a little recognition, which is definitely a good thing. The record companies are losing a lot of control which is just being transferred back to the artist. Now you can go and record a decent sounding album in your bedroom and promote the hell out of it from the same place.
According to Jared the CD has been selling well on their personal site, with orders coming from all over the world, especially Germany, where the thrash scene is still very prominent. They also have a gig coming up with metal legends Exciter, and will share the bill with Fueled by Fire, Ravage, and a host of other great bands keeping the metal flame burning. The CD they’ve created is one of very forthright, non-generic music that can only be a stepping stone on a long road of success for them if they keep firing on all cylinders the way they have on their debut. If you really savor the thrash genre of old and want to be reassured that it’s being championed full-throttle in the present day, then you have to hear Judgment Hammer. They’re going to be making noise for a while, so jump on early and tell your friends you remember when they hit, how they surprised the hell out of you, etc.
It’s how I felt about Metallica back in 1983, and it’s how you can feel about the Hammer now.
Release Date: November 3, 2009
Label: Band Self Released
ARBITER OF FATE
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1. Lightning War
2. Judgment Hammer
4. Never Repent
5. No Surrender
6. Kill Or Be Killed
7. Swift Justice
8. Join Or Die
9. Thicker Than Water
10. Brazen Serpent
Total playing time: 58:58
All photos by Warren Smith