Doom duo Hour of 13 weave classic dark tales, threads of damnation on new ‘333’

Evil and heavy metal have walked hand in hand since the start of the genre. Basically, this stuff is based in darkness, devils, and dread, and that’s part of what makes it so much fun. If we wanted happiness and good times, we’d listen to whatever shit was on the radio. People still listen to those, right?

Anyhow, doom especially has been drenched in darkness and murk, starting with Black Sabbath and running right through other areas of extreme music such as Hellhammer/Celtic Frost and Bathory of black metal’s first wave, through other doom artists such as Candlemass and St. Vitus, through the second wave of black metal, into death metal, and so on. It’s always there, and I’ve always seen it as a healthy, human thing to examine the scarier parts of our existence. It’s there, and it must be addressed, otherwise we don’t know how to confront it when it’s in front of us. Or it can remind us that no matter how bad things are for us, they always could be worse.

North Carolina’s Hour of 13 have been making some of doom metal’s most interesting sounds the past six years, and while the union between multi-instrumentalist Chad Davis and vocalist Phil Swanson has been a little shaky (Swanson has bowed out a couple times only to return, thankfully), they’ve always managed to pull it together when it comes to making records. They opened a lot of eyes on their debut self-titled disc in 2007, and they managed to go one better on 2010’s “The Ritualist,” a killer record initially released by Eyes Like Snow before Earache snapped up the group and put their second album back on the market with wider distribution.

Hour of 13 are back with their excellent third album “333,” the first delivered exclusively for Earache and one that should put them on the doom metal map. Davis once again puts together dark, classic-style compositions that compel and drag you into the murk, while Swanson, with his charismatic, unmistakable delivery, serves as your time-tested, heathen storyteller. His voice may be a bit of an acquired taste for some people – he’s got some classic Ozzy Osbourne in him – but it’s impossible not to hang on his every word and follow him into whatever dark tunnel he leads you. He’s that commanding and interesting a frontman, and Hour of 13 would not be the same without him.

As usual, the band espouses about black magic, hell, the devil, and all things unholy, but their tales also have a strange sense of warning about them. It might just be tongue-in-cheek, but some of the lyrics almost sound as if they’re saying beware of what you do or your soul’s going to burn in a lake of fire. Or perhaps that’s what they want you to think. I can see how you could take these messages either way, but surely in the end, they’re glorifying the thorny, seedy elements of existence. So watch your steps.

Opener “Deny the Cross” not only has a classic-sounding title, but the song itself could have been a staple of Headbangers Ball in the 80s and not been out of place. I mean that in a good way. The track runs a little longer than seven minutes and has its share of tempo shifts and psychological damage. Swanson wails, “I thought I found my way, but still I’m lost,” before inevitably denying the cross, though later he admits, “Now I must pay the price/No paradise.” Interesting dichotomy there. “The Burning” follows and also sounds like a member of the damned preemptively walking you through hell, letting you see the gates and feel the flames. It’s also an infectious song with a rock-solid construction that’s pure heavy metal through and through.

“Rite of Samhain” has Swanson finding his soul reborn in a late-night ritual, with Davis following him up with sinewy dual guitar lines and confident soloing; “Spiral Vacuum” opens on a dizzying note but then breaks into a classic rock journey not terribly unlike Blue Oyster Cult at their apex; “Who’s to Blame” has some moments that reek of early Iron Maiden, and Swanson even manages to pump out a few growls here and there; “Sea of Trees” is full of fantasy imagery and Sabbath-like guitar work, and it’s a nice stage-setter for closer “Lucky Bones,” a song that’s found its way around the Internet already, that’s built on trucking riffs, some Judas Priest-style grit, and a mystical close that leaves you in the mist.

Hopefully Hour of 13 remain intact for some time to come, because they really seem to be gaining speed and have a label behind them that has some experience handling bands like theirs. “333” is the band’s best album by far, one that could be labeled a modern doom classic, and that deserves to be heard by anyone who dabbles in darkness now and again. Or all the time.

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