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

Posted in Reviews on August 2nd, 2012 by JJ Koczan

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.

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