Sanctus Bellum Love Their ‘Craft

Without delving full-on into the sundry mythologies involved in the works, I’ll say that every song on Houston, Texas, metallers Sanctus Bellum’s self-released debut full-length, Return to Dust, relates in some way to the writing of H.P. Lovecraft. Using a well-honed combination of Google and Wikipedia, I’ve confirmed it for all six of the songs; the doomy “God’s Own Warrior” proving the most challenging and referencing The Nyarlathotep Cycle in its chorus. “Shoggoth’s Ascent,” “Dagon’s Bride,” “Curwen,” “The Reddening West” and “White Cat” were much easier to figure out. So hey, it’s a metal band with songs about Lovecraft stories. Not that it’s never happened before, but bands these days are few and far between willing to take it to the level Sanctus Bellum does.

Some – not nearly enough – will remember Sanctus Bellum vocalist Justin Waggoner from his work in prior, more directly stoner, outfit Mr. Plow, whose lighthearted lyrics about Carlo Rossi and The Dude seem miles away from Return to Dust, although, Mr. Plow’s third and final album, Asteroid 25399, was based entirely on the work of Kurt Vonnegut, so the literary theme isn’t completely unprecedented, and with Houston being such a hotbed for the doom underground, Waggoner’s joining forces with guitarist Jan Kimmel, bassist Ben Yaker and drummer Cory Cousins (Maurice Eggenschwiler also plays guitar in the live incarnation) in the decidedly metallic Sanctus Bellum makes sense, the songs having echoes of early Danzig, Iron Maiden, those moments when Slayer come up for air, and by default, Black Sabbath. But for “God’s Own Warrior,” they keep mostly a quick pace, all things relative, with Kimmel leading the charge by way of fleet riffage and the occasional blistering solo.

Apart from “The Reddening West” – which seems to be named for the titular character in Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Reanimator,” whose ears inexplicably turn red at one point in the story (hey, it’s Lovecraft), but is just as easily attributable to Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel, Blood Meridian – at a comfortable 4:24, the six songs that make up Return to Dust all reside in the five to seven minute range, with “Dagon’s Bride” being the most directly groove-based and perhaps the most memorable for the line “That fish-eyed girl’s gonna rule my world.” For his part, Waggoner keeps a similar approach as he had in most of Mr. Plow’s material, switching between a mid-range clean and gruffer shouting (no screams or growls), capably melodic, occasionally multi-layered in self-harmony and something I always liken to Layne Staley in approach if not actual sound. His voice seems as home in Sanctus Bellum as it did in his prior outfit.

The production on Return to Dust is a little raw as regards Cousins’ drums, which feel mixed too high and too dry and would benefit from some reverb (not a critique on his playing) as compared to Kimmel’s guitar, which has a dark tone befitting the album’s artwork and setting the overall vibe of the material. This being a self-released affair, Sanctus Bellum come out of it sounding like they have a good idea of where they want to be sonically, and while I’m sure Return to Dust shows them on their way, I would be very surprised if subsequent material and albums weren’t more developed, even if in the most subtle of ways – guitar flourishes here and there, drum and bass fills, off-time lyrics, and so forth – than the material comprising these six tracks. That said listening to the main riff of “Curwen” feels like being shoved around in a classic heavy metal mosh pit — no whiteboy karate — and that’s never a bad thing.

Whether or not you choose to engage it on the Lovecraftian level and spend the better part of your day tracking down each reference online (the author’s complete works are available for free reading) is entirely up to you, but even if you just want to get down with some heavy riffing and headbang-worthy tracks, you should know Sanctus Bellum put the literature to good use. Given Waggoner’s propensity to bounce lyrically from subject to subject, one has to wonder if Lovecraft is going to be a consistent well of material for the band of if it’s a one-time-only affair for Return to Dust. Either way, it’s made for an appealing starting point for the band and a quality listen for anyone looking for something heavier than your typical stoner fare without going total doom. It’s classic metal on multiple levels, well executed in a modern context. Cthulhu beckons.

Sanctus Bellum on MySpace

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