I’m sure that there will be those who balk at Plagues Upon Arda, simply because of its lyrical content. Khazaddum are hardly the first band to take inspiration from The Lord Of The Rings, but most bands who do so handle the matter in ways that is, frankly, cheesy and immature. This album avoids any such pitfalls though, comprised as it is of relentless, pummeling death metal that takes inspiration from the likes of Behemoth and Nile. Far from being a novelty record, Plagues Upon Arda is an album of real strength and talent that would surely stand out even without its atypical lyrical themes.
The lightest moments of the album come right at the start, with symphonic introductory track ‘The Halls Of Khazad-Dum’. From there though, the album is a whirlwind of technical riffs, punishing drums, and vocals summoned from the deepest depths. Comparisons to Behemoth are well-founded, with Khazaddum striking a similar balance between technicality and raw, physical brutality. The addition of symphonic elements at key points helps give Khazaddum their own identity too, and these elements are used sparingly, complimenting the core death metal sound rather than ever risking overwhelming it. The production is strong, giving the music the power and vibrancy it deserves, though the bass drums can come across as overly compressed (an issue I find plagues most modern death metal albums, to be fair). Despite this though, there’s no denying the power of songs such as ‘Legion Of The White Hand’ or ‘The Black Hand Of Gorthaur’, which hold their own against almost anything any of the ‘big’ death metal bands are releasing these days.
This is does highlight one of the issues with Plagues Upon Arda, though. Despite the distinctive lyrical themes, and the use of symphonic elements, there are moments when the songs come a bit too close to recalling some of the bigger names in death metal. The opening moments of ‘Lord Of Isengard’ in particular is very similar to Behemoth’s ‘Slaves Shall Serve’, and though the songs move in different directions after those first few seconds, it’s still hard to shift that initial comparison. Yet, despite this, Plagues Upon Arda manages to put across enough of its own character to avoid feeling derivative; and most of the songs are fairly concise, with only two (‘Lord Of Isengard’ and closer ‘Oathbreaker’s Curse’) running over five minutes. A lot of death metal songs of this ilk risk overstaying their welcome, packing in too many riffs or repeated sections, but that’s not the case here – the energy stays high, and the riffs are consistently interesting and strong.
Considering this is the first album from Khazaddum, it is a remarkably confident piece of work, and though it never fully steps out of the long shadows cast by its big name contemporaries, there’s more than enough here to suggest that Khazaddum will do so in time. For now though, they have delivered a fine album in Plagues Upon Arda, whether you care for its Tolkien-inspired concept or not.
Plagues is due for release on 19 August 2017, and can be pre-ordered digitally via Bandcamp.