Nations to Flames is the fifth full-length from New York City metal outfit A Storm of Light, a band that has seen their sound become heavier and more punishing as their career has progressed. Their latest offering sees the twin guitar attack of Josh Graham and Andrea Black wedded to the rumbling, thunderous bass lines of Domenic Seita and the propulsive, bottom-heavy percussion of drummer Billy Graves. The result is a metal album with a distinctly industrial cast to it, more Ministry – or for that matter, Killing Joke – than Black Sabbath. It’s a choice that pays dividends at first, as the album starts strongly, but it fades midway through, and ends up delivering diminishing returns.
Opener “Fall” kicks things off with a solid dose of mid-tempo crunch and a sinister riff in support of Graham’s howls. The song quickly ups its tempo into double-time. Follow-up tune “Apostles of Hatred” ploughs a similarly riff-laden furrow, throwing in plenty of vocal angst to boot. At this point the sonic palette has been established for the record as a whole – dense guitar distortion, pulsing if somewhat repetitive bass lines, raspy but sung (as opposed to growled) vocals, and a drummer lively enough to fill in the gaps underneath. There are some keyboards in there, too, but for the most part they call little attention to themselves.
And so it goes. “Omen” picks things up a little bit, while “Dead Flags” slows them down again. If the album had stopped there as a 5-track EP, it would have been the sonic equivalent to a slap in the face. As it is, though, the band pushes on with another six songs, and the diminishing returns set in. Sure, there are moments of interest scattered throughout the back half of the album, like the nice guitar tone in the intro to “All the Shining Lies” or the stomping riff of “You Are the Hunted”. But there’s an inescapable sense of listener fatigue as well: the dynamics barely shift throughout the record, there’s little interplay between the bass and the other instruments, and scarcely a guitar solo worth mentioning. It’s all about setting a mood, but the mood doesn’t change very much.
It’s worth mentioning that dearth of solo guitar here. There is some, to be sure, but even when there is a lead break of a few bars, as in the back half of “The Fire Sermon”, it’s less an occasion for technical wizardry than a chance for the lead guitar to echo the chord progression of the song itself. This is no crime, but it is one fewer tool in the tool box that the band could use to differentiate the songs.
The album packaging is worth a mention too, laden as it is with post-apocalyptic imagery, burning American flags, grave declarations that “the year is one” and so forth. This is all great stuff, or it could be anyway: a provocative and much-needed reminder that we live in just another empire, and all empires are doomed to fall: an antidote to the jingoism that increasingly permeates American culture. (Did you watch those Super Bowl ads? Sheesh.) Unfortunately, any kind of considered commentary on the society in which we live is lost amid the layers of distortion and double-kick drumming. The album fails to deliver on its image, in other words, as generic metal expressions take over: flags will burn, those in power tell lies, everything will disintegrate, we’ll all die. Well, yes. But I knew all that already, and I’d been hoping for something a little more specific.
No worries: there are plenty of grinding riffs and pummeling beats here for those searching for them. Listeners satisfied with that, and with a few vaguely shouted, anthemic refrains against, y’know, oppression, will like this record just fine.