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So Grim So True So Real: Kreator

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Just a couple weeks ago, Kreator released their fourteenth studio record Gods of Violence. Another new album by an ‘80s thrash act normally isn’t especially newsworthy. Nearly every one of those bands have had a comeback or two and have been pumping out fairly decent albums regularly since the mid-2000’s. Where their Teutonic counterparts Sodom, Destruction and Tankard have reveled in their consistency over the years (Well, let’s forget about late 90s Destruction), Kreator’s sound has been ever-evolving. Early deathgrind, American technical thrash, industrial, post-punk and Gothenburg-style melo-death have all found their way into Kreator’s music over their nearly thirty-five year career.

Gods of Violence is an anomaly however, bucking Kreator’s recent linear trend towards triumphant melodic death metal. It’s their most pissed-off release in decades, and it’s an album that’s made re-evaluating their discography necessary. Without the context of history, Kreator’s back catalog changes drastically. Supposed genre-staples are diminished, while forgotten records are finally given the chance they deserve. Even their “classic thrash comeback” has suffered thanks to Gods of Violence’s high achievement. With a fresh perspective offered by the year 2017, we’ve re-assessed one of Germany’s finest metal exports with a new edition of So Grim, So True, So Real.

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So Grim: Cause for Conflict (1995, G.U.N. Records)

Of course a selection from Kreator’s ’90s output made it here. Kreator, much like [insert ‘80s thrash band here] was creatively lost, uninspired and pandered to commercial audiences throughout the ’90s, right? That narrative would hold true for the German grandmasters if most of their records from the 1990s weren’t such fine pieces of work. Coma of Souls has rightfully earned its place as a stone-cold tech-thrash classic. Renewal‘s bone-dry, glass-eyed attack surprisingly holds up, the moody darkness heard on Outcast makes for an enjoyable piece of gothic metal and Endorama is a phenomenal Killing Joke album (you can never have too much Killing Joke).

1995’s Cause for Conflict however, is Kreator’s most uninteresting record all across the board. For only one album, vocalist and guitarist Mille Petrozza lost his ability to write catchy melodies. Nearly every track has its tempo jacked, Petrozza and Frank Blackfire send their right hands into blurs with incessant palm-muted thrash riff skullduggery and one-time drummer Joe Cangelosi pulverizes his kick-pedals into a pulp. Double-kick madness and laser-precise technicality aren’t the only ingredients for a great metal song however; a single interesting riff accomplishes far more than the ignorant beatdowns heard on “Sculpture of Regret,” “Dogmatic Authority” and “Catholics Despot.” In a nutshell, it’s impossible to remember much of Cause for Conflict’s aimless riff cornucopia. Little stands out, and even the short and barreling “Bomb Threat” still feels lethargic.

The punky swing heard on “State Oppression” and the moody hints of atmosphere sprinkled throughout “Lost” are small reminders of Kreator’s former glory, but for the most part, Cause for Conflict is a very boring record. Petrozza’s voice is rough but lacks venom, the riffs thrash without kinetic energy and Kreator sounds passionless and uninspired on what was their most aggressive record since Pleasure to Kill. For a more satisfying exploration of what Kreator were capable of in that decade, 1999’s Endorama accomplishes far more than Cause for Conflict ever could.

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So True: Pleasure to Kill (1986, Noise Records)

If Cause for Conflict‘s forgettable nature proved that virtuosity wasn’t enough to make a great record, Pleasure to Kill showed that technical accomplishment was practically unnecessary to create a bonafide masterpiece. Kreator sound like they’re falling apart for nearly every minute of their sophomore record Pleasure to Kill; Ventor’s drums pump and fire spastically throughout “Ripping Corpse” and “Death is Your Saviour” and Petrozza’s vocals lack any kind of command and authority, instead relying on foam-mouthed, rabies-infested ferocity to tell his tales of murder and disease.

Even though the band’s instrumental ability was not up to spec on Pleasure to Kill, Kreator’s songwriting indicated otherwise. In other words, Kreator wrote songs that they were practically unable to play. The progressive and amorphous arrangement of “The Pestilence” and the title track’s rolling tom-tom hook were signs that Petrozza and Kreator had a confident vision far beyond their years and experience. Even the bridge in “Under the Guillotine,” a double-kick driven trade-off guitar solo, designates drastic key and tempo changes in the song. And yet, Petrozza and bassist Rob Fioretti always sound like they’re only barely keeping up with Ventor’s off-the-rails hammering.

In 1986, this perfect storm of technical ineptitude, compositional ambition and a gloriously over-the-top production made for an album that was revolutionary. No thrash metal record had sounded so out of control and combustible, and that chaotic sound paired with Petrozza and Ventor’s grotesque lyrics provided an early blueprint for death metal. On their next three records, the members of Kreator would improve as musicians and center their efforts on dazzling fans with tight riffing and lightning-quick polka beats. While the efforts were still impressive, Kreator slowly given up the endearing quality that made them stand out from their American counterparts. By the time Coma of Souls came to be in 1990, Kreator had lost so much of the odd, off-kilter character that had made albums like Terrible Certainty special. With Pleasure to Kill however, Kreator’s dark, rabid and gore-soaked assault made for an album that was utterly unique. It still rages and stuns like few others to this day.

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So Real: Gods of Violence (2017, Nuclear Blast)

Since the release of Violent Revolution in 2001, Kreator has been on a roll that has put their peers to shame. With the addition of guitarist Sami Yli-Sirnio to the lineup, Kreator not only embraced their thrash roots but they successfully incorporated the melodic hooks that were first heard on Outcast and Endorama from the 1990s. Every one of Kreator’s records in the new millennium has demonstrated an increasing emphasis on huge choruses, soaring guitar solos and fluttering riffs set against a thrash backbone. With 2012’s Phantom Antichrist, this evolution hit a boiling point. It was a quality record, but by then the thrash was mostly absent in favor of a sound that had more in common with melodic death metal.

Given the band’s creative progression throughout the 00s, the energy and thrashing spirit heard on Gods of Violence is somewhat shocking. Kreator’s recent penchant for massive choruses is still in effect, but the band sounds hungrier and more fiery than they have in decades. There’s a manic urgency to the title track and “World War Now” that Kreator simply have not harnessed since 1989’s Extreme Aggression. Petrozza’s ear for experimentation has returned, but this time his moves are confident and exuberant. The fresh NWOBHM-esque breaks in “Lion With Eagle Wings” and its weaving and dueling solo boil over with a youthful energy that is impossible to ignore, as does the Maiden-worshipping bridge in “Death Becomes My Light.”

It’s possible that by virtue of its high quality, Gods of Violence has done more harm than good to Kreator’s discography. By comparison, their recent albums before it now sound nearly sterile: devoid of the life and spark that courses through Gods of Violence‘s veins. It’s an energy that can be felt rather than heard, the rush that you feel as Ventor activates his feet mid-way through the solo in “Lion With Eagle Wings” or when the band practically explodes as Petrozza hurls the opening scream to “Totalitarian Terror.” Gods of Violence isn’t without filler, but for the first time in thirty years a Kreator record has the slamming momentum to make that point irrelevant.

The thrash comeback of the mid-to-late 2000s spoiled and numbed us; the alarming number of high-quality records from Megadeth, Testament, Exodus, Overkill, Kreator and others coagulated into a homogenized sound. That was the sound of 40 year-old men rediscovering their love of alternate-picking, click-track tight drumming and Andy Sneap. With Gods of Violence, Kreator have torn those tropes down, blazed a new path forward for themselves and have made one of the best records of their career.

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