What ultimately stands High Fighter‘s Svart-delivered debut long-player, Scars and Crosses apart, aesthetically, is its aggression. The Hamburg, Germany, five-piece of vocalist Mona Miluski, guitarists Christian “Shi” Pappas and Ingwer Boysen, bassist Constantin Wüst and drummer/backing vocalist Thomas Wildelau made their debut in 2014 with the impressively cohesive The Goat Ritual EP (review here), and at its foundation, the story was much the same. Though High Fighter have been duly embraced by the heavy rock community in Europe and beyond, they’re really a metal band. That’s audible in their tonality, their attention to detail, in the clean singing and screams and growls of Miluski and in the arrangements of how and when she switches between them.
Mixed and mastered by Toshi Kasai (Melvins, Leeches of Lore, etc.) from a recording by Jens Siefert at RAMA Studio in Mannheim, the album’s 41-minute span is vehemently straightforward, with some flourish of effects in the guitars and bluesy undertone, but interested primarily in thrust, and when there’s any letup at all as on the swaying start of “Portrait Mind,” it doesn’t last long. It’s an active listen, and the energy with which they deliver the included eight tracks gives the impression of an active band — punching someone in the face, after all, can be a real workout — but what’s going to be the deciding factor for many listeners particularly within the sphere of the heavy underground is whether they view High Fighter‘s metallurgy as righteous in its defiance of a genre status quo that’s only gotten lazier over the last half-decade or a group simply trying to meld styles to whatever degree of success depending on the audience’s point of view.
Listening to the command with which Miluski and the band behind her execute this material makes it easier to argue toward the former. Adrenaline is a major element at work even in the slower chug and wah of the penultimate “Down to the Sky,” but in its more intense moments — looking at you, “Blinders” — Scars and Crosses plays to modern metal sensibilities with a viscerally screamed verse and soaring clean chorus. The dual guitars of Pappas and Boysen careen through riffs of winding thrash on that song but are no less comfortable dug into the more rolling groove of the preceding “The Gatekeeper,” which also trades melody for screams between its verses and choruses, but swaps the structure to suit the groove and the linear built taking place over the song’s five and a half minutes.
Following 6:33 opener and longest track (immediate points) “A Silver Heart” and the subsequent “Darkest Days” — which features a choice “ough” grunt from Miluski and the most satisfying direct linear build on offer — “The Gatekeeper” expands the context of Scars and Crosses to a degree, finds High Fighter leaning more toward groove than assault, but as noted, “Blinders” is perhaps the most raging cut on the record, so the balance is readjusted almost immediately as side A rounds out. What unites those two tracks, the first two, and the four still to come on side B is the songwriting and the confidence in execution that High Fighter show across the board. The Goat Ritual showed solid potential, but Scars and Crosses takes pivotal steps in positioning High Fighter where they would seem to want to be sound-wise — in a space between worlds that few bands would be so bold as to willfully inhabit.
“Portrait Mind” continues the thread at the launch of the album’s second half but also boasts a highlight guitar solo, while the subsequent “Gods” seems to nod back at “The Gatekeeper” with a desert rock riff reconstituted to suit High Fighter‘s purposes, giving a fuller look at what might become an expanded context over time for their approach. That continues in “Down to the Sky” as they draw back on some of the urgency in order to let a fluidity take hold for a few minutes in the song’s first half, Wildelau‘s kick offering firm punctuation throughout and signaling the launch of the solo section in the final third with an uptick in pace leading back to the chorus. This leaves the title-track with an even more difficult task of summarizing the album as a whole.
It does so with a central push derived in part from Kyuss‘ “Odyssey” that arrives offset by a slowdown hook and layered-in lead work that solidifies around a still-upbeat but nod-ready groove before expanding outward with effects on the guitar, vocal harmonies and a move into the apex of the record itself before a final minute filled only by the hum of feedback. Certainly that says it all as much as anything I could come up with, and “Scars and Crosses” rounds out the album by emphasizing what are already the band’s strengths in songwriting and performance while also giving a look at possible sides of their personality they might play with going forward. Make no mistake, they’re already a solid band, and I think Scars and Crosses deserves consideration among 2016’s most accomplished debuts, but High Fighter give no indication in these songs that this is the sum total of what they have to say as a unit, and that only bodes well for their future progress.