Proffering doomed desolation with just an edge of riff worship and plenty of tonal brutality, Massachusetts trio Faces of Bayon leave a huge impression with their debut full-length, Heart of the Fire (Ragnarok Records). The Fitchburg outfit formed in 2008, recorded all of Heart of the Fire live in the studio and dedicate the finished product in memory of drummer Matt Davis, who died suddenly in January 2011. Mike Brown has since come aboard to handle drums, but on Heart of the Fire, it’s the band’s original three-piece, with Davis and bassist Ron Miles (Scattered Remnants) led by guitarist/vocalist Matt Smith, who did a stint in now-fabled outfit Warhorse prior to their 2001 As Heaven Turns to Ash LP. Smith’s vocals characterize a lot of Heart of the Fire and situate Faces of Bayon in a ‘90s death/doom vein, a cut like second track “Ethereality” bringing to mind a punchier version of early Paradise Lost or maybe even My Dying Bride without the violins or the drama. His growl – an exclusive approach across Heart of the Fire but for the quiet atmospheric piece “Godmaker” – is throaty, gruff and mostly saturated in echoing reverb, setting a kind of misanthropic atmosphere to the songs, which deal lyrically in part with the fall of Lucifer. However, Faces of Bayon are – most of all – ridiculously, floor-shakingly, chest-rattlingly heavy. From Miles’ ultra-low bass that kicks in 12-minute opener “Brimstoned” from under Smith’s feedback, to the righteously riff-led groove of “The Original Sin,” the three-piece taps into a weight of tone few ever attain, and manage to carry it through Heart of the Fire sounding clear, confident and in complete control.
Heads who recognize the name Warhorse or who dug the wretched atmospheres once affected by Winter will take demented pleasure in most of Heart of the Fire and the balance Faces of Bayon strike between their heavy influences. “Brimstoned” never loses sight of the nastiness of tone with which it begins, Miles and Davis following Smith’s riff as it leads them lower into some unknowable abyss, but at the same time, underneath that thickened and deathly distortion, there’s a current of groove running that’s both purely American in its style (distinguishing Faces of Bayon from the European end of the genre as typified by the Paradise Lost comparison above) and what manages to most hook the listener. Even as the song breaks into a quiet passage with whispered growls and quieter guitar lines – it’s a setup, they get heavy again soon enough – that groove is maintained, and it’s at the core of a lot of the success of Heart of the Fire. Perhaps the most memorable track on the album if only for its repeated usage of the line “Cry me a river,” second cut “Ethereality” finds Smith pushing his vocals down even further, while also having them show up higher in the mix – hazards of recording live – and though it seems at times like he’s straining to sustain the growl, it doesn’t at all upset the ambience of the song, which is viciously depressive and pained anyway. Again here Faces of Bayon make a firm statement about their willingness to push low-end heaviness to the forefront. A drawn out guitar solo toward the end of the song is like a hand come up from quicksand, but it too is ultimately sucked down into a morass of feedback and cymbal crashes.
If there’s relief to be found anywhere in the album’s first half, it’s on “Godmaker,” which despite being consistent in terms of mood, is a quiet, somewhat psychedelic tale of Luciferian abandonment scored by soft guitar lines and far-away drumming from Davis. It is Smith’s only clean vocal performance on Heart of the Fire, and though he remains effects-laden, he does a decent job through his several verses. Important to note that even when the lyrics are concerned with these themes, Faces of Bayon don’t put on airs about worshiping the devil or anything like that. “Godmaker” and Heart of the Fire as a whole are concerned more in telling an all-too-human story of disappointment. These songs are emotionally-wrought, not dogmatically blasphemous (unless you consider giving fallen angels an emotional response to be blasphemy). As “Godmaker” leads into the epic 13:33 “The Original Sin,” Faces of Bayon slam back into the heavier side of their sound, but base the song around a more stoner metal progression than any of the earlier tracks. Of all the material on Heart of the Fire, “The Original Sin” feels the most riff-based. Smith goes back to growling, but taken out of its context, his guitar line could have been subject to almost any vocal treatment and have worked. The tempo is still slow, but faster than “Brimstoned,” and consistent until about the last four minutes, when Davis cuts the drums out and an excruciating rash of feedback and noise ensues.
Given the noisy finish to “The Original Sin,” the track feels like the end of the album – and as the songs have already filled 38 minutes, it could have been – so when “Where the Golden Road Ends” kicks in with just under 11 minutes more, it’s almost like Heart of the Fire is starting over. It helps in that comparison that the song has a similar start with Smith’s feedback and Miles’ bass as did “Brimstoned,” but the band quickly works away from the “Haven’t I heard this before?” feeling by including a running line of synth along with the guitar, bass and drums. Several solos from Smith take hold before vocals finally kick in, and if nothing else, “Where the Golden Road Ends” demonstrates Faces of Bayon’s ability to work in multiple structures. There are verses to the song, but no real chorus, the main riff proving memorable enough to get through the first six minutes until it breaks to the guitar-only and Smith introduces the figure that will consume much of the track’s second half, morphing eventually into a more-actively-drummed, uptempo version of the intro. There’s a songwriting methodology at play with Faces of Bayon, but with all the noise, feedback and heft, it might not be immediately apparent just what moves the band is making. Nonetheless, as “Where the Golden Road Ends” and gives way to the 2:50 synth/snare/cymbal outro “The Fire Burns at Dawn,” one does get the impression of having just heard a song, rather than a collection of disparate or somehow poorly matched parts.
No other way to say it: Faces of Bayon impress with Heart of the Fire. No doubt Smith’s association with Warhorse will help raise their profile among the right people (those being anyone who’s heard of Warhorse), and if they can use the debut as a launch point for further creative development, they could wind up being a real force in a new school of riff-minded American death/doom. For now, Heart of the Fire trudges through its 52 minutes with marked agony and a mind to obliterate any building in which it’s played, and unless you forgot what “heavy” means, that should be enough to get you on board at very least for the next one.Faces of Bayon, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, Ragnarok Records