Ilsa unleash another dose of sludge-caked doom, crushing horror with ‘The Felon’s Claw’

IlsaThere probably isn’t a less metal way to start off one of these breezy daily essays than with talking about branding, but holy shit, here we go. It’s a lost art in metal. Over the past few decades, bands such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica, Emperor, Opeth, Mercyful Fate, and others, not only established their music but what it meant to be those very groups.

Look, it’s extreme metal. I get it. Who needs slick marketing campaigns and such when the idea is to just get pummeled? Very true. That’s not what I mean. Instead, I’m trying to pay tribute to bands that maintain consistency in the way they present themselves so that, when you see their records on the shelves or you see their merch, you know it’s theirs. So often, album covers seem like they got maybe four seconds of thought, and logos have become something of a homogenized blur. Their careful identity construction is one of the things that always made me appreciate DC-based doom sludgers Ilsa, because they’ve taken the time and effort to conceptualize a recognizable logo that has stuck with them over the years, as well as a very consistent style of albums covers—black background, artwork in black and white print—that makes you excited when a new recording is sitting in your hands. And a new one should be making its way to your mitts soon with their excellent “The Felon’s Claw.”

Ilsa coverNow, having a great logo and trademark-style artwork is all well and good, but what if the music doesn’t measure up? That’s never been an issue at all with Ilsa—vocalist Orion, guitarists Brendan and Tim, bassist Sharad, drummer Joshy—as over the course of four records now, they’ve wrecked the senses with their grimy, heavy-as-hell metal that often drubs you to the point of submission. Their tales of horror and destruction often feel like they’re ripped from old films (their name is derived from decades-old Nazi sexploitation films) or the pages of a graphic comic book (or the newspaper, if we’re being honest), and they’ve always packed one hell of a punch into their music. This fourth album is no exception.

The ominous and raucous “Oubliette” opens with record with grim, buzzing melodies, vocals that strangle, and guitar work that hints at classic heavy metal in spots. It’s a strong first blasts and gets you ready for “25 Cromwell,” a gruesome tale about the brutal Wests couple and the carnage they amassed over the years. The band backs the horror with sludgy riffs, stiff growls, and a slow-driving menace, with the crime scene’s address howled over and over, hammering home to infamy of the mass grave site. “Smoke Is the Ghost of Fire” is ultra-slow trucking, with some bluesy guitar work baked in and a strong dose of harshness in the vocals. The pace then kicks up, with the group steamrolling forward and leaving you battered in its wake. “Buried in the Bedrock and Concrete of Our Cities” is a shorter cut, but one that makes its massive presence known over its 2:29. The tempo bursts, the vocals sound chock full of danger, and the fire chokes out anyone in its proximity. “Pandolpho” has a noisy, abrasive open, before the song is properly torn apart and smudgy thrash takes control. The track is mostly sweltering, with Orion working up a foamed mouth vocally, the band pounding away, and the fiery soloing re-opening any congealing wounds.

“Pass Out” has noise glowing at the start before guitars come chugging in and the pace bristles. The tempo is pretty thrashy, with the vocals piercing and the track really catching fire in its final half. “Enter the Void” is overflowing with riffs, and the guitar work sounds ripped from death metal’s decaying book. The whole thing then hits the tar pit, with the band devastating in slow-driving fashion, trading in any speed for abject heaviness. In fact, it feels like the weight of a planet bearing down, and it stays that way until the final moments when the band slams the gas pedal again. “Armstrong’s Mixture” is raw and aggressive, upping the ante a bit, as the song rumbles, the vocals sound a little raspier, and each second of this thing drops with vicious intent. “Katabasis” opens with Orion howling, “It’s coming!” as the band rips into a gut-wrenching section that batters relentlessly. The song just trudges unmercifully, remaining crushing the whole way through and the band totally taking their time with things. You are dragged over jagged earth, face-first, as they punish for nearly nine minutes, finally bleeding out after a fury of guitar soloing. Closer “Song of the Saw Blade” pulls things back toward convention, as they take just a few minutes to unleash some doomy rage and crunch your bones, while Orion growls in your face. The band hits on a face-splitting riff as the song reaches its end while the fellows take a few final stomps at your squishy guts.

It’s great to have Ilsa back in our world, three years after their last record. As usual, consistency is high with this group, from their packaging to their approach to their ability to beat your ass with their music. “The Felon’s Claw” delivers over and over again, and it fits right alongside the rest of their catalog as another wind milling crusher certain to leave you with two black eyes.

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