Sanctus Bellum, The Shining Path: A Matchstick in the Inferno

It’s not easy to tell where the focus is for Sanctus Bellum on their second self-released full-length, The Shining Path. Upon pulling the disc out of its eight-panel digipak (preceded, of course by a few moments to admire the Santos Illustration artwork adorning the cover), you’ll see that Jan Kimmel is listed as contributing “lead, rhythm, slide and classical guitar” as well as Hammond, and that Maurice Eggenschwiler handles “lead, rhythm and classical guitar,” as opposed to, say, Ben Yaker, who plays “bass,” Cory Cousins, who plays “drums” and Justin Waggoner, whose “vocals” could easily have a few more modifiers attached to them, “gruff and melodic” being two that come to mind. Eggenschwiler, a live-only guitarist for Sanctus Bellum when they released their 2010 debut, Return to Dust (review here), has since (well) earned a permanent place in the band, and while they were guitar-heavy to start with, it’s clearly made a difference in the overall sound of The Shining Path. He and Kimmel trade solos back and forth on more than one occasion – who’s playing where is marked in the liner notes along with the lyrics Waggoner is singing and presumably wrote (a reference to Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five in the opening title-track is a tell) – and if that’s following a tradition of classic metal, it’s only one of Sanctus Bellum’s signs of allegiance to it. The album, comprised of six mostly extended tracks (the shortest being “Vessel” at 6:16 and the longest the immediately following “Dumb Luck Divinity” at 10:06) and totaling out at a manageable, relatively concise 46:38, never seems to settle completely into one style of heavy or another. Cousins and Yaker offer no shortage of groove in the rhythm section, and Kimmel and Eggenschwiler have an obvious awareness of classic doom, but their tones are distorted, not fuzzed, and they also shred, and Waggoner’s voice is more brooding and grungier than it’s ever sounded before, either with this band or his prior outfit, Mr. Plow, so it’s a challenge to get a sense of just where Sanctus Bellum are coming from for the first couple listens.

Obviously that’s the idea. You’re not supposed to listen to The Shining Path as it launches with its nine-minute titular cut and say definitively, “this is doom” or “this is metal.” “The Shining Path” has elements of both and more, Yaker honing in on a creepy bassline as Waggoner shoots references off of Vonnegut and the Bible prior to the guitars taking over for a barrage of leads that set the tone for what the rest of the album has to offer. “The Shining Path” has one of the strongest choruses of any of these songs, and so makes an excellent opener, but the shorter “Spiral Jacobs” (6:47) follows up with affirmation of the dreary, metallic atmosphere, and as the song cycles through its opening progression a second time, the parts establish a kind of familiarity for themselves before a break after 3:45 leads, feedback-soaked into the second movement. Eggenschwiler busts out formidable leads and, following another four-line verse, Kimmel answers with some of his own, and as becomes the pattern for the songs, it’s Waggoner who gets the last word. Nonetheless, an uptick in the guitar presence has clearly served the band well, and even moments of flourish like that at the end of “Spiral Jacobs” show an increase in confidence in the malleability of the songs. “Vessel,” appropriately, opens with a lead from Eggenschwiler, but finds its culmination later in its chorus. Running at a faster pace, it’s all the more appropriate for Waggoner to throw in a few screams at the end of bridge lines, and though it’s the shortest track, it’s also the most lyric-heavy on the whole of The Shining Path, that chorus of “I don’t aim the gun/I am the gun/Make me the vessel/The deed is done” coming around for a second time before the ending churn thrashes its way to a Slayer comparison.

Here too, Sanctus Bellum execute a transition well, as the lead hum in Kimmel’s solo at the beginning of “Dumb Luck Divinity” also sounds like a Slayer reference, despite the pace being obviously cut between the two tracks (thinking “Dead Skin Mask,” and it’s only for a second, but it’s there if you want to hear it). “Dumb Luck Divinity” is slower and more patient. Yaker’s best bass work comes after the halfway point, as leading into (of course) a guitar solo, he seems to throw in a flourish of Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Sea,” but in general, the longest slice of The Shining Path is also the most accomplished, and that’s never a bad thing. It’s not the catchiest song on the record, or the most memorable, but the fivesome prove they can ably stretch their creative scope, and that has a value on its own both in terms of the actual listening experience here and what it might mean for future output. Eggenschwiler and Kimmel counter leads until there’s about 10 seconds left and “Dumb Luck Divinity” meets a sudden end, giving way to the forward-driving riffs and grunge-type push of “Beautiful Swimmers.” Waggoner stays subdued in the first two verses before opening up in the chorus, and the performance is as effective in attitude as in sonics. There were pieces of Return to Dust that I likened to Alice in Chains, and if that’s true of anything on The Shining Path, it’s true of “Beautiful Swimmers,” though I’m left to wonder how it might sound with some harmonies backing him. Certainly Eggenschwiler and Kimmel are too busy to play Cantrell to his Staley, but it might be an interesting experiment anyway to have more than just the occasional bit of double-layering. Whether or not they might go that course remains to be seen, but in the meantime, the eight-minute “Ephaniah” closes out The Shining Path with a suitable answer to the strong opening the title-track gave it, offsetting the by-now-expected solo work with a landmark chorus and memorable vocal drawl from Waggoner resting atop effectively crunching riffs.

Mostly in the pocket here after being woefully mixed last time around, Cousins also offers a distinguishing performance on the closer, as he and Yaker drive a thrashing break (an answer back to “Vessel” as well as “The Shining Path,” it seems) and hold my attention even more than Eggenschwiler and Kimmel, whose leads follow not far behind, are split by a verse, and offer one last round of shred before a slowdown brings the chorus around one more time and a subtle – call it “medium-sized” as opposed to “big” – rock finish concludes the song and record. In many ways, The Shining Path is precisely what I’d hoped would come from Sanctus Bellum after Return to Dust. It expands on the ideas the first release presented, grows the sound, tightens the performances and increases the production value without sacrificing any of the raw edge that makes the material as powerful as it is. There are moments in listening where I feel caught up in the guitar work, however, and as someone who doesn’t play, it feels laid on thick and draws a bit of the attention away from the choruses in, say, “Vessel” or “Spiral Jacobs” in a way I’m not sure is intended. For Sanctus Bellum to challenge the notion of genre-assignation is one thing – they do that here and do it well – but losing the feel for a song’s structure in listening would seem to indicate there’s still some balancing to be done. Something to look forward to next time, perhaps, as if the shift from Return to Dust to The Shining Path shows anything, it’s that Sanctus Bellum have their eye keened on progression from one release to the following. I doubt they’ll add a third guitarist, so the jump might not be so radical next time out, but even if they just embark on refining the course they’ve laid out for themselves on these songs, that suits me just fine.

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