Artist: Demon Hunter
Label: Solid State Records
Release Date: 03.18.14
Reviewer: Lee Brown
- Artificial Light
- What I’m Not
- The Last One Alive
- I Wil Fail You
- One Last Song
- Cross to Bear
- Hell Don’t Need Me
- In Time
- Beyond Me
- The Heart of a Graveyard
Tucked away in the arctic tundra that is Wyoming sits a super-volcano known to most as “Old Faithful.” For centuries this geyser has hidden a brooding power within that, at just the right moment, unleashes itself in spectacular fashion before returning to a period of simmering expectation. This is Demon Hunter personified (even though Ryan makes fun of my home land on a Training for Utopia song). Making their primary living in other trades, Ryan Clark and company often spend long periods of time simmering behind the scenes and beneath the surface. But, in the course of what is now seven historic albums, fans know that a super volcano of metal prowess is constantly brooding and bubbling beneath the surface ready to unleash itself upon the world at regular intervals.
Extremist marks that spectacular explosion back onto a scene that the band has long since claimed rulership over. It would be an understatement, therefore, to merely state that expectations are high for this release. Having captured an increasingly rabid cult following since the release of their debut album, the perception has become that DH must raise the bar to uncharted levels time and again. Over the past couple albums, this has seemingly meant getting always heavier and including increasingly thrashy elements, while still balancing in Ryan’s ability to seamlessly move into clean vocals and power ballads at the drop of a hat.
Fans may be surprised, then, to find that with Extremist Demon Hunter has gone back to the drawing board. Although the album certainly has that distinct DH sound which makes incredible use of both sides of Ryan’s discordant range, the band brings more classic metal elements to the table than ever before. In the pre-release material promoting the album, Clark has stated that this is the single most “purposeful” and scrutinized DH album to date.
Though each album has its own flair and flavor, Extremist is certainly the most distinctive album on the band’s discography. Those used to the most recent albums (The World is a Thorn and True Defiance) may be a bit startled by the incorporation of a slower style that creates a “modern” take on doom metal and even incorporates light European stylings. However, once that shock wears off the true force of this amazing album is felt. As Clark has stated, each song does feel like it was more highly scrutinized and each lick and riff feels both different and more organic. The overall feel of the album is that of a classic metal masterpiece that fans really, truly, and actually will come back to decades later and still find a welcome and familiar home.
All said, Extremist finds DH at the top of their game. Though I would argue that the band has never created a poor album, I have personally been less and less connected with each release since Storm the Gates of Hell. Putting this statement in context, however, is the fact that Demon Hunter’s “worst” is heads and shoulders above most other bands’ absolute best efforts. Extremist, though is more than a return to form… it is a rebirth that has riveted me to the music in a way that I haven’t quite felt as strongly since the band’s “golden age” (Summer of Darkness, The Triptych, Storm the Gates of Hell).
As Clark set out to do, each song seems to carry its own weight while still progressing the overall album theme. Though DH has never had a problem excelling musically, this album brings an even higher instance of scorching riffs and masterful solos, with the overall effect producing an album that feels like an instant classic from start to finish. But, as amazing as it is to say, it is not the the high musical quality alone that makes this album a classic. It is the intensely purposeful, intelligently biting, and all-around faithful message being screamed into our consciousness that makes Extremist far and away the head of the pack for album of the year so far.
The rosetta stone to understanding Extremist is found both in the title of the album and in the song “Gasoline.” Without the framework these two create, it is very possible to misinterpret the band’s biting point (which I started to do in an earlier version of this review). The title lets you know right from the start that we are dealing not just with an extreme topic or idea, but an extremist… that is, a person who is sold out beyond the hordes and masses to something. Just what this extreme devotion is to becomes the backdrop that sets the tone of the album.
It wasn’t until I really let “Gasoline” sink down into me (yep, read that with both meanings), however, that I “got” what I feel Ryan is truly saying. In “Gasoline” Ryan paints the picture of feigning apology to someone who has been, in the past, offended by the band’s extreme stances on faith, life, death, devotion, and the like. Here Ryan bellows, “I thought about you… let me ease away the painful words I wrote, we can smother out the flames within my soul, no more standing by the way that I believe…” In this, he gives an ear to those who have claimed the band is too extreme in their faith, their music, and etc. However, it is the next line that sets the tone through which the album as a whole should be viewed. In feigning concern for those who would say that he has been either too devoted or not devoted enough to his beliefs he screams, “we can smother out the flames WITH GASOLINE” (All caps for the change from somber singing to brutal screaming).
Of course, gasoline on fire doesn’t put things out… it makes it even more extreme. And that is the point. Ryan is saying, in effect, “listen, I’m not backing down. You want me to water it down, tone it down, and I’m telling you things only get more extreme from here.” This antagonistic tone is felt throughout the album and if one were to miss it, you could VERY easily misinterpret other songs on the album if taken individually.
Album Breakdown: Extremist begins with a classic DH jam in “Death.” In our exclusive Demon Hunter Week questions (see main page of site each day this week), Ryan says that he wishes more bands would quit following what’s trendy and just write more songs about death. This album certainly takes that advice. In fact, it begins and ends with a counter-argument format. At the outset we see the defeated enemy of death asking foolish man “just who do you think I am?” This points to the fact that we seem to take death as if it is a positive thing and/or our the ultimate solution. In this Clark (as death) proclaims, “I’m not your hope… I’m not your paragon of justice…” This is directly countered by the closing track “The Heart of a Graveyard” (skip down to the explanation on it if you wish before moving on).
“Artificial Light,” the first single and most likely to sit on Demon Hunter’s Greatest Hits album of the future, moves from death to the idea of false prophets, teachers, hopes, etc. In this, the song is pretty straightforward. Lyrics like, “we want a real cure, not idle sympathy” coupled with the overall message of the album give this song a familiarity to tracks like “Sixteen.” Ryan states in his “About Artificial Light” video that this is related back to lyrics in metal that pose the problem, but don’t really offer any hope.
“What I’m Not” brings the first real flavoring of European metal influences to the mix, though the track is still mostly classic DH in style. In this track, Ryan defines what he/the band is by pointing to what they are distinctly not. “Every idol I refuse, every declaration, becoming what I’m not.” This is a great song through and through with an amazing guitar solo that is simply classic metal at its finest.
“The Last One Alive” is the first anthemic track that begins another thread weaved through the album of asking if “I’m the only one still standing in this extreme faith/trust/hope.” The song begins by asking, “Does anyone still try? Does anyone still hope to set their eyes beyond this place where angels fall and darkness reigns, where time dissolves the brightest flames?” The song brings a heavy charge against a world who allows the troubles and times to choke the light from their midst. However, it also offers a hope in/through/for the remnant as it proclaims “this is where we find the only hope within this place…” Though Christ is not specifically pointed to with a direct finger, DH weaves His name through the underpinnings of the tapestry in a way that, especially knowing their faith, He is hard to ignore as that “only hope.” This song also features another great guitar spot that will keep purists in awe.
“I Will Fail You” takes the message behind “A Thread of Light” and gives it an antagonistic spin. This furthers that “extremist” angle nicely while making a statement that if “you” are looking for the band to water it down, tone it down, change, be less outspoken… then, “I will fail you, of this I’m sure… I will fail you to the core.” I’m sure this song will be popular as a beacon of ire to those that the track is speaking directly to. Of course, there is also the surface meaning that in any relationship, you will fail the person at some point, and dealing with that reality. If you watch no other video from Ryan’s series of explanation videos, watch I Will Fail You, as it’s weight is felt across the album as a whole and the entire Extremist theme.
“One Last Song” picks up the remnant theme from “The Last One Alive.” “There is a fire in me. I feel it burn within my chest. Returning back with every vacancy of breath… One last song to sing… this everlasting Word inside me…” Like the other “last” themed track, this is a great anthemic track that inspires action… though the point of it seems to be that with each song Ryan sings he may be facing his last chance to make a difference in the world for that listener at that time. The effect goes back to the “extremist” theme that if he only gets one song, he’s going to make it count and forget about all the detractors who want it watered down.
Speaking of those detractors… there is no other way to approach “Cross to Bear” than to see it as a railing against those who nit-pick the band and bemoan them at every other turn. This song follows the heart of “I Will Fail You,” but turns its ire up to eleven. I haven’t found any better words to describe the track than to say that it is the most pissed off Demon Hunter song ever. I mean, “Sixteen” didn’t really mince words, but even it didn’t proclaim repeatedly that “not one of you bastards has a cross to bear.” As we talked with Ryan (see our exclusive Demon Hunter Week content), he mentioned about how each album people say that the cover is “more evil” even though they’ve used a spin on the exact same image every time… or how them using red gels to saturate a band picture in that hue proves that they are in service to the enemy… well, this is their answer to that… and it won’t make those same people the song is written against big fans in the process… nor was it meant to.
“Hell Don’t Need Me” is unique in the fact that it almost works as a southern rock track. Extremist was produced by the same guy who has worked heavily with The Showdown in the past and this is where that shows the most. From the lyrics, to the musical landscape, to that intangible tone of the song everything almost seems to have a “down south” feel to it. This song (unless I’m way off base) speaks antagonistically towards the person who feels like they’re “good enough” and so “hell don’t need me.” This is spoken directly against, again, in the closing track. The line “the water will decide where to feed me. Mother don’t you cry, hell don’t need me,” speaks to this “let the chips fall where they may” “go with the flow” attitude that many have to eternity.
“In Time” returns once again to the remnant theme, brining a hopeful answer to the question, “Am I the only one left?” This song serves to uplift and empower the “extremists” by saying, “in time we will erase it all… we are the fault of our own fall… but the faithful are not alone.” It is not quite as bold and empowering as, say, “Undying,” or “Not Ready to Die,” in tone… but it does a great job of taking the bullets of the world (and the detractors from within that are spoken against), wearing them on the sleeve, and saying, “we got this, kid.” In the end, Ryan is lifting his hand high and saying, “Don’t let them tear it from your hands,” because we won’t let them tear it from ours.
“Beyond Me” follows “Hell Don’t Need Me” in painting the picture of a person who “trusts in the powerless, the ever-knowing inside, see no deliverance, leave all conviction behind.” This is the “chest-less man” C. S. Lewis spoke of in The Abolition of Man. Ryan questions this person, “Where does your allegiance lie?” as he also says that all they will find is a “lonely hope” as a “nameless soul… dying to be whole.”
Again, “Gasoline” is the rosetta stone for comprehending this album as a whole, and it is a simply fantastic song from start to finish, as well. However, since we’ve already outlined it, allow me to move on to the closing track. “The Heart of a Graveyard” is not only a counterpoint to the opening track “Death,” but to the attitude highlighted in songs like “Hell Don’t Need Me.” DH paints the picture of a lonely grave with an empty hope as they proclaim, “tell me that your final home is not a shot in the dark. Tell me that your hopes and dreams don’t end in the heart of a graveyard.” While this track isn’t the uplifting piece that “Undying” or “Storm the Gates of Hell” were, it is more relatable and challenging. With any attention to details, the listener should walk away asking themselves what their eternity really looks like, where they are going, and whether or not they are willing to be extreme for what they believe.
Musicianship: I do not hesitate to say that in terms of the music alone, this is Demon Hunter’s best album. It is “classic” both in the sense of the style that Demon Hunter has evolved over the years and in the sense of simply classical metal. The light European stylings and heavy doom metal influence blend together with their signature riffs to create something that finally rivals their “golden age” of Summer of Darkness, The Triptych, and Storm the Gates of Hell.
Lyrical/Spiritual Content: This is Demon Hunter’s most aggressive album lyrically ever. It is also their most purposeful. Each track took several listens to really get what was going on, and when I (think I) did get what was being said, deep waters were found. I’ve outlined the deep message above and, therefore, will not repeat it here. The way that Ryan weaves the elements of being an extremist, unapologetic for this stance, and plays with the expectations of the “norms” of the world is great. If I were one of those nit-picky people railed against in “Cross to Bear,” I’d say I wish there were a little more direct ending pointed to Jesus Himself. That said, the point was to bring up the right questions and give the listener a desire to search than to take their hand and force them into what the band sees as the Right Answer (though the allusions are more than strong enough that you get the point).
Lasting Value: With any piece of artwork there is a question as to how it will stand the test of time. For example, many still hold Summer of Darkness as the paragon of what Demon Hunter have to offer all these years later. Extremist will stand the test of time. It is a classic album that deserves to sit in stores (or whatever we have in the future) alongside any classic metal album still chugging along since the 70’s and beyond. This album deserves to earn the band new fans as it gets heavily replayed into the next several decades. Yep, it’s that well done.
Overall: Demon Hunter is back with a dynamic album that blends classical and European metal stylings into their already distinct sound. The effect is an album that is at once familiar and perpetually new. Ryan Clark, songwriter and singer, has claimed publicly that this is the single most purposefully made DH album to date. I can’t disagree with him. Extremist weaves a powerful tale that at once decries expectations and yet sets the bar for any album that comes after it. This is Demon Hunter at their best and it should make waves in the musical world upon its release just as it makes waves in people’s souls that cause them to question what lies beyond this place “where angels fall and darkness reigns.”
RIYL: Living Sacrifice, Doom Metal, Any Demon Hunter album so far
Related Links and Media:
Demon Hunter Week exclusively here on IVM, every day of release week. Want a sample of what we’re offering? Check out our Demon Hunter Week PREVIEW, here.
Hear Ryan Clark himself talk about the meaning behind his songs: Artificial Light, The Last One Alive, I Will Fail You