German thrash veterans Kreator remain hungry as ever on ‘Phantom Antichrist’

This current run of young thrash bands trying to visit sounds that preceded their members’ actual presence on Earth? I don’t like it. Not that the effort is what bothers me; it’s more the execution. It doesn’t feel valid at all, and while I don’t doubt all their little hearts are in the right place, it doesn’t often feel very authentic. So I don’t indulge in it very much because I typically wind up not caring.

I blame two things for this: First, I grew up in the era in which thrash came into its prominence, and any part of my damaged hearing has to be blamed largely on me blasting various bands’ cassettes through headphones on my way to and from school each day. So there’s an obvious bias there of “the bands I grew up with are better than the ones coming out now” sort of thing that, admittedly, could be annoying. Second, I’m old and set in my ways, and I pass judgment on the new kids because they cannot possibly capture the essence of this genre since they were not there to understand how it came to be. Now and again, you get a Municipal Waste or a lesser known band like Obsessor that gets it right, but usually it’s one-and-done listening to most of the new thrash promos I get. This is why I’m always excited to get something new from an old favorite.

That’s not to say all of the veteran bands hit the nail on the head every time either. Do we even need to discuss what’s become of Metallica? Their Big 4 mates have done slightly better quality wise (though certainly their sales pale in comparison), as Megadeth have done an OK job rehabbing themselves, Anthrax put out a pretty decent comeback album last year, and Slayer aren’t as ferocious and instantaneous as they once were, but they still make good albums. Two of the most impressive older bands have been Testament and Overkill, whose recent albums have been damn good. And then there’s Kreator.

My first exposure to these German thrash stalwarts came via their video for “Betrayer” from their classic 1989 release “Extreme Aggression,” and that occasionally played video on Headbangers Ball always would pique my interest because they were so much faster and more aggressive than the other thrash bands. The vocals always were harsher and screamier, the guitar work a little more violent, and their songs seemed as serious as anyone else in the genre. Plus, their album covers always captivated me, even one as sort of plain as the “Aggression” artwork. From this point, I followed the band’s releases and goings on, with the exception of when I dropped out of metal in the late ’90s/early’00s (I blame the rise if nu-metal), and my interest really picked up again with their 2005 record “Enemy of God,” released by SPV/Steamhammer.

Here we are seven years later, and Kreator still are going strong, laying waste to the new crop of thrash bands and even re-capturing the fire of their younger years. They recently signed a new deal with metal powerhouse Nuclear Blast, and the first entry of that agreement is here in the form of “Phantom Antichrist.” Now, album title and their aversion to religion aside, this isn’t a God-basher per se. The themes seemed based more on what organized religion has done to humanity, how it has twisted and warped people’s morals, and how it has become a controlling aspect of politics and societal happenings. Just watching the news here in the States the last couple weeks, you easily can find ways that people have taken religion and used it to scorn, hurt, and segregate people. Isn’t that sort of the opposite of its intended effect?

Kreator’s voice from the start has been has been Miland “Mille” Petrozza, who also plays guitar, and with him is co-founding member and drummer Jürgen Reil (he’s been in the band all but two years in the mid-1990s), guitarist Sami Yli-Sirniö (aboard since 2001) and bassist Christian Giesler (a member since 1994). On their 13th studio album, they sound as fiery as ever, and while the blistering speed isn’t their primary goal anymore, they remain a really heavy unit. What they trade in savagery, they make up for in melody, as there are many moments on “Phantom” that sound inspired by Iron Maiden/Helloween-style power metal, mostly in the guitar work, and that lends a sense of epicness to these tracks. Perhaps some of that openness and spaciousness is the work of producer Jens Bogren (Opeth, Katatonia, Amon Amarth), but whoever is responsible, it infuses a sense of life and reinvigoration into Kreator, a band that wasn’t exactly in dire need of a recharge. But they got it anyway.

The album opens with “Mars Mantra,” a string-heavy, somewhat lush introduction that runs into the title track, one of the speedier pieces on the album that has Petrozza practically spitting out his words, at one point howling, “Terror will prevail,” while the band marches with him in fury and purpose. “Death to the World” has an environmental message and laments the abuse the planet has taken, and when Petrozza growls, “The whole human race shall die,” it’s because he’s envisioning earth eventually snuffing out its assailants. You know, us. “From Flood Into Fire” is the first taste of their power chops, and the chorus is uplifting and melodic. “Civilization Collapse” also imagines humankind bringing on its own destruction, this time from within, though they encourage those who fear a societal fall to help prevent one. “Your Heaven, My Hell” is one that weighs the destructive power of religion and what it makes people do to each other, and when Petrozza shouts, “Kill all the gods,” he actually has a productive, sensible reason for doing so. Victory Will Come” has a Slayer flavor to it musically, and it, too, is melodic and defiant, while closer “Until Our Paths Cross Again” acts as an anthem of empowerment, and while it might not be the heaviest song in Kreator’s canon, it’s one of the most passionate.

“Phantom Antichrist” is a solid entry from thrash veterans who haven’t forgotten what makes this genre so much fun. They’re explosive, direct, confrontational, and even inspirational when the time is right. A lot of the newer bands can learn something from Kreator, both from their past work and what they do here, not only about how to make meaningful, impactful music, but how to do it over a long period of time. The bulk of Kreator’s lifespan may be in their rearview, but it doesn’t sound like they planning on hitting the brakes any time in the near future.

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