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Empire State Bastard add surprising warmth and whimsy to a cauldron of evil on Rivers of Heresy

"Rivers of Heresy"

Release date: 01 September 2023
Empire State Bastard Rivers of Heresy cover
29 August 2023, 09:00 Written by Elliot Burr

When Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil first envisioned a band going by the name of Empire State Bastard, he was probably laughing at the prospect of bringing unwelcome terror to knowingly sadistic listeners and unlikely recipients of fury.

ESB’s concept, like a B-movie slasher, was simple. Alongside tour bus buddy and live guitarist Mike Vennart (also of alt-rock outfit Oceansize), they intended to make the most depraved and uncompromising sound they could muster. Neither are strangers to left field musical noise – despite arena-sized rock making up their last decade, the mathy and shouty post-hardcore of Neil’s early noughties output turns its intentionally ugly head once again on the aptly dubbed Rivers of Heresy. That’s where the on-the-nose evil only just gets started.

With tongues firmly in their cheeks, the duo wasted no time introducing their vicious vision with “Harvest” which, considering ESB’s desire to make something so wretched, one may have expected a more off-putting morsel. Nonetheless, the album unleashes more aural assault later, and the track still rips its way through ear canals with stabby, staccato chords. Neil’s vocals go through the shredder on “Blusher” too, with animalist strains closer to lo-fi screamo contexts. It’s a fair way away from “Many of Horror”, for those only accustomed to Neil’s soothing balladry. But that’s not to say his characteristic whimsy doesn’t feature, as cute ‘wooh woohs!’ are peppered throughout, while the vocal layering on “Dusty” adds marvellous gloss away from brash indiscernible screams to elevate the noise to new plains.

There’s a clear throughline being the musicians’ chemistry, especially complemented by extreme music’s best studio drummer-for-hire. Performing unsurprisingly well, Dave Lombardo is the human tornado glueing everything together through combustible snares, cymbal lust, lumbered workhorse toms (“Moi”), or double kick tomfoolery (“Palms of Hands”). “Tired, Aye” is an exercise into what isolated manic screams and crazed drums sound like together, and it works. After all, if anyone had the opportunity to scream their arse off with a member of Slayer, they would.

Even besides the intentional insidiousness, Rivers of Heresy flourishes when it veers into heady atmospherics – eerie synths colour “Stutter” and Vennart dips into his full arsenal of crispy, full guitar tones on “Sons and Daughters”, peddling doom-like sustained notes and feedback. The almost lamenting passages offer brief reflections when we know the gnarliness of sludge or face-ripping speed lurks just around the corner. The guitars are best used sparingly as punchy uppercuts in mood-building closer “The Looming”.

When Neil leads us away cheekily with the macabre “I’ll never grow old in a graveyard”, the confidence sounds resolute. The trio’s abilities were already in cement, but being uninhibited by past musical ventures has become a marvellously fun, snarling beast. Who knows what freakish monolith ESB could next evolve into, but no doubt it'll probably be wicked in every sense of the word.

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