Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Entombed - Serpent Saints: The Ten Amendments (2007)

The first time I put this album on and the spooky acoustics and piano parted ways like virgin lips for the full on, refreshing blast of Sweden's favorite death metal pastime, I had nothing but a hideous, fat smile across my pasty face. This was the Entombed that I had known and loved in the early 90s, one of the first true breakout bands in the entire death metal genre. And yet, this was still the Entombed that loved its rock & roll, hardcore and punk rock music. But of all their work post Wolverine Blues, this must be the album that I most closely associate with a 'return to the roots' that made the band such a force to begin with. It also arrived about four years after its predecessor, not the first of these seeming pauses in the band's discography. But this album had the benefit of a 'preview' the year before through the When in Sodom EP, which was excellent. And while To Ride, Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth was an underwhelming evolution for the band, which by this point even the more steadfast of the band's fans have largely forgotten, Serpent Saints - The Ten Amendments is a celebration of their entire history, smothered across 10 tight tracks of darkly comic mayhem.

Yes, the lyrics to this album are just as tongue in cheek as the past few efforts, if not more so, and for this reason, homophobes and curmudgeons might squawk at some of the delivery, especially since L-G Petrov is also having a go with his vocals here. But I assure you, this is all intentional, in the same bitter, dried wit of Morning Star and Inferno. Other changes here are to the tone, which is far cleaner than Inferno, possibly one of the more professional jobs they've had done with their work, yet still dense and atmospheric like their debut Left Hand Path. Other change-ups occur here within the band's lineup: Olle Dahlstedt of Misery Loves Co. takes over Peter Stjärnvind long-standing drumkit, and Nico Elgstrand of Terra Firma replaces Jörgen Sandström on the bass. Also, Uffe Cederlund had departed, so Alex Hellid was alone here on the guitars. But fear not, the integration here is quite seamless. Maybe the drums are a little tighter, but that's all I could notice.

The title track is a great choice for kicking off this beast, as it sprays a wave of loving nostalgia across your soul like a skunk'll be wearing that smile long after the song ends, and your friends will be curious as to weather you're high or simply had a great sexual experience. They also might hesitate to shake your hand, you naughty sinner. There is still a hardcore/grind inflection to the guitar work that drives the tune forward, but then, this has always been the case, as far back as their formative years as Nihilist. Everything here is superb, from the verses to the crushing breakdown complete with Petrov's mouth full of angst, compounded here by the addition of 'snarling', black metal style vocals which we really haven't heard before from this source. "Masters of Death" opens with a salvo of 80s thrash guitars, recalling the fuzzy tone of Indestroy or Venom before moving towards a crossover rhythm strewn in death metal icing. "Amok" begins with all the subtlety of a late night slasher flick, building tension through ambiance and tolling before the deep groove of the guitars can be felt, and I mean groove. If Jimmy Page had been a serial killer, he might have written something like this before he went out on his final spree. The lyrics are blunt and a little strange, but they seem to fit the profile.

You wanna see me dead and buried
You better think again
I am the one your daughter married
And I don't play pretend

"Thy Kingdom Koma" digs down for another thrash riff, and Petrov uses one of his classic grand entrances, as the vocals echo into existence over the forward termination ala "Eyemaster". The track is a lot of fun, though the crunchy breakdown riff would hardly be effective without the atmosphere created by the vocals. We'd already been introduced to "When in Sodom" with the EP, but it fits in snugly here with its batshit dorky sexualizations, hinting at a larger social political perspective (as always). The use of the female backups in the bridge adds another level to the track, like the eerie biblical transgressions they conjure. Next is the slamming "In the Blood", with opens with a wall of groove every bit as massive as that you might find in "Demon" off Wolverine Blues, but grows ever creepier, as Petrov reaches into the gut and emerges with some of the most guttural vox he has used in forever. "Ministry" is a strange, percussive, choppy rhythmic piece which actually conjured up the BAND Ministry, at least during the verse, so I doubt the title is a coincidence. The chorus is driving and melodic, but otherwise it's probably the worst song on the album.

"The Dead, The Dying and the Dying to Be Dead", which wins an award here for best song title, starts off with a rock hook which might mislead you to think this is some tripe like what the band shat out on Same Difference, but it does escalate into a violent hybrid of punk and thrash, with some charging footwork breaks and a pretty amusing lyrical passage:

They fuck you standing up, they fuck you when you're down
And if you get to be the king, they will shit on your crown
And when you're dead, you won't be forgotten
They will dig you up, and they will fuck you rotten

Despite its wild cavorting and the crazy King Diamond-like laughter which hangs off in the distance during the groove, ghoulish breakdown, this too was not one of the better songs here, though superior to "Ministry" at least and lyrically entertaining. I was a little worried that "Warfare, Plague, Famine, Death" might follow suit, since it also brings back a lot of the band's hardcore influence, but the chorus here is fantastic, with little samples that break out behind the vocal line and a brutal thrash charge in there which alternates with a wailing old school Entombed deadline melody. "Love Song for Lucifer" is truly unique, like the closing cut "Amen" off the When in Sodom EP. A clean male/female vocal duet soothes over bristling acoustic guitars and turbulent background noise, as if they were being directed at you from a lone radio in an apocalyptic wasteland, the batteries soon to run dry. These are joined by some distorted barks before the track closes out the album with a series of cranking noises. Though strange, the track is sufficiently unsettling, and the pseudo-sexuality of lyrics that open with a repetition of "Come inside of me" is not lost upon its blasphemous veneer.

As you can tell, I'm pretty fond of Serpent Saints, an extremely solid album #9 for a band almost 20 years into their career. This is obviously not at the Left Hand Path level, or even Clandestine quality, but I'm not sure they will ever reach that again, so this sits confidently along with Wolverine Blues and Morning Star across the band's second tier of material. "Ministry" is probably the one song here I didn't care for, though "The Dead, The Dying and the Dying to Be Dead" has its weaknesses. To be honest, the trajectory of Serpent Saints falls slightly beneath the plane I had anticipated after hearing the 2006 EP, which featured some superb non-album tracks that are better than some of the songs here. Either way, this is money well spent. It's old but new, sleek and polished, and dripping with both humor and bitter humility.

Highlights: Serpent Saints, Masters of Death, In the Blood, When in Sodom, Love Song for Lucifer

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]
(sick at it may seem)

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