Review: Helcaraxë – ‘Red Dragon’

Everyone knows that metal styles are no longer moored to geography. Norway may produce lots of black metal and NOLA may produce lots of sludge, but you can find those styles pretty much anywhere else, too.

Still, genre markings often indicate homeland, and it’s tempting to take them at face value. When you open Helcaraxë’s Bandcamp, the following indicators scream “Europe” (and “Germany” in particular) louder than white linen capris on a man:

-Blaring, fresh-off-the-Tor-Books-presses dragon cover art
-Scrolly logo
-Unpredictable umlaut in the band name
-An older album titled Broadsword
-The Bandcamp tags: death metal, dragon, hobbit, melodic, progressive

And then there’s the last Bandcamp tag: New Jersey.

That this Tolkien-themed progressive melodeath band hails from the least epic place in North America is Helcaraxë’s first surprise. The second is that guitarist and chief songwriter Bill Henderson was a founding member of the emo band Thursday. (Vindictive purists, you may close this browser tab now.) The third and most important surprise is that Red Dragon is actually really good.

“Really good” isn’t an adjectival phrase that I have much occasion to apply to melodic death metal these days. Perhaps that’s why this album is hitting me as hard as it is—this style’s few remaining stalwarts are polished, thrashy, and synth-happy. These qualities do not appeal to me.

By contrast, Helcaraxë brings genuine grit and guts to the table. I’m reminded of Eucharist and Amorphis, bands that should’ve played a much larger role in setting the tone for the style. I’m reminded even more strongly of Edge of Sanity’s Crimson: by Red Dragon’s one-long-song format, by the beefy rhythms (no thrash here), and by vocalist Jesse Traynor’s raw bellow.

This album came out late last year to a chorus of crickets. It’s a shame—I would’ve liked to see it rekindle an interest in this rougher, uglier vision of melodeath. IO commenter Andy Synn and I recently had an exchange in which he gave contemporary melodeath a clean bill of health. I demurred at the time; if there were more bands like Helcaraxë out there, I might be more inclined to agree with him.

-Doug Moore