- Screwtape (Feat. Ryan Clark of Demon Hunter)
- Ghost Thief
- The Reaping
- Straw Man
- American Made
- Your War
- Despair (Feat. David Peters of Throwdown)
In 2009 genre leading heavyweights Demon Hunter released their Live in Nashville album upon the world. During the chatter and lead-in to their song “Sixteen,” which features Bruce Fitzhugh of Living Sacrifice (the chatter can be found at the end of “Follow the Wolves”), Ryan Clark educated the crowd about the greatness that was Living Sacrifice. During his hype, Ryan told the crowd to do their homework and go back and buy some records, because LS are the “godfathers” of Christ-focused metal, and added that many in the industry are there today because of Living Sacrifice’s influence.
Of course, this was also around the time that LS was working on their successful and greatly reviewed comeback album The Infinite Order. In fact, the response to The Infinite Order was overwhelmingly in the vein of stating that Living Sacrifice had not skipped a single beat in their half-decade plus absence and were definitively better than ever. Coming away from 2010, rumors and rumblings began that the band may be ready to drop another masterpiece upon the metal-fearing world… but as it had in the past, years came and went with no new album in sight. During this time, Bruce provided some excellent vocal work on Project 86’s own masterpiece Wait For the Siren… but it was not until this very month that fans will be able to get their hands on LS’s followup to 2010’s gem, which I’m going to argue is even better than the album it follows in every way.
With Ghost Thief, Living Sacrifice once again proves that they are indeed the godfathers of an entire genre that they have carved in their image. In every way it is as skillful, technical, brutal, and lyrically impressive as their last effort. Even casual fans of “classic,” “thrash,” or merely “heavy” metal will find a technical precision that is unmatched with just a casual listen. While other lesser bands attempt to disguise a lack of true skill by employing judicious use of sweep picking (thanks to fellow writer John Magelssen for the discussion on that one), LS are simply classic in their approach and prove time and again on this new effort that they can handle beautifully done chords and riffs. While it must be said that Bruce still has one of the best voices in the business, Living Sacrifice is not afraid to have Bruce just sit back and let the masterful music speak for itself.
As a fan of Demon Hunter before I discovered Living Sacrifice, it is also nice to see the band begin the album with a guest spot from Demon Hunter frontman Ryan Clark. And, for me, it is a double pleasure as the track “Screwtape” invokes the name/imagery of one of C. S. Lewis’ most dearly beloved masterpieces (The Screwtape Letters). Fans more familiar with Demon Hunter’s body of work will see some easy parallels between the bands (especially here, of course, and on “Mask”) in terms of certain styles and effects, but make no mistake it is the former that has inspired the latter as Clark pointed out in 2009.
Lyrically, Ghost Thief picks up many of the underlying threads that began in Infinite Order. From the opening message of “Screwtape” there is a very deeply philosophical discussion recurring. Infinite Order came to its pinnacle with this slant in “Nietzsche’s Madness,” and Ghost Thief, in many places, feels like a continuation of that conversation. The title of the track “Straw Man” refers to a philosophical logical fallacy of creating an easily defeated caricature of a person’s/group’s argument and then easily knocking it over, for example. Throughout there is a raging against empty and hollow philosophy.
The album begins beautifully, as mentioned, with “Screwtape,” which itself begins with a winding melodious moment of beauty that breaks gently into some nice chugging before fully embracing the brutality to come. Ryan’s vocals, as always, are inspiring to behold, blend well with Bruce’s gravelly crooning, and make the track one of the immediate highlights of the album. Fans of both Demon Hunter (whose style is very apparent) and Living Sacrifice will definitely rank this track as one of their new favorites for each band, respectively. This track is also the first that introduces the recurring “deceptive hollow philosophies” theme you’ll see working its way through each track to come.
Taking their name from Romans 12:1 in the Bible, this theme of renewing the mind and challenging deceptive thinking shouldn’t come as a surprise. It is, after all, the very next verse that commands the believer in Christ to “not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” I know this is a Living Sacrifice 101 level comment, but it bears stating anew, anyway.
Just as it began, “Screwtape” exists with a moment of sublimnity leading into the album’s title track. “Ghost Thief” eschews beauty for basic riffing brutality from the get go and, boy, does it bring some skillful musicianship to the table in spades with some really solid progressions that have just a bit of “thrash” to them. Lyrically/thematically it seems to retain Lewis’ influence by referring to his “Shadowlands” theology. That is to say that just as a shadow is a poor and imperfect reflection of a man, so this world is merely the shadowlands of the glory we shall see in heaven. Lyrics like, “There is no guarantee for tomorrow, we are not home. We are passing through… this is just a dream of what is to be” give credence to the heavenly focus of “Ghost Thief.”
“The Reaping” takes the heaviness of “Ghost Thief” and begins to notch things up again even further. Musically, it is simply one of the most skillful songs to have come out in the genre this year, hands down. Check out the song below and get a feel for yourself to see what I’m talking about:
“Straw Man” as mentioned, is a reference to a logical fallacy used against an argument to make it seem flat and indefensible without really tackling the weightier measures it may hold. It is used and/or pointed out in philosophy as both a tool in argumentation and a cautionary tale. It is the latter that LS here employs. “I am not who you think I am. I am not who you paint me to be,” Bruce screams to open the track and continues with, “I am not called to be your idea of how you see me… a straw man.”
“Sudden” returns to the hope of breaking “these mortal coils” first glimpsed in the title track. Lyrics like, “I will endeavor to see You again in the world that lies beyond. I will endeavor to see you again beyond this veil of sight” invokes both the Lewisian imagery mentioned and Paul’s hope-filled statement in 1 Corinthians 13:12 that though we now see as though it were through a dim and dirty window, then we will see Him face to face. In this, “Sudden” is a hope filled track that (the repeated “never to return” says it all) will certainly sit alongside Five Iron Frenzy’s “On Distant Shores,” Blindside’s “Where the Sun Never Dies,” The Showdown’s “Laid to Rest,” and Demon Hunter’s “Carry Me Down” as my official soundtrack to the true hope of heaven Ted Dekker spoke of in his The Slumber of Christianity and Lewis painted beautifully in the conclusion to his Narnian adventures, The Last Stand (Though I think “Laid to Rest” is hard to top in that category).
“Mask” perfectly follows the Pauline progression from 1 Corinthians 12 over to 2 Corinthians 3:18 with imagery of our “unveiled faces” before the Lord leading into statements that though “everyone has suffered inside… what you see in shadow… there is no room for despair.” For a comment on musical acumen, I need only point to when the breakdown hits, as LS employ a beautiful and almost 80’s influenced breakdown section that is simply a cut above.
“American Made,” which is rather unfortunately not a cover of Hulk Hogan’s 90’s theme song, comes across as one of the heavier tracks on one hand, and one of the more patterned on the other. Certainly this track represents the most thrash-heavy track with some of the fastest guitar work and double bass pedal usage found on all of Ghost Thief. Lyrically, the phrase “it is empty… I exchanged the truth for a lie…” brings things back to that central nervous system supporting the whole of the album’s skeleton. Of course, it also dives into the recently popular theological trend of tackling the falsehood of the “American Dream” that “takes it’s toll.” This idea is exemplified in David Platt’s Radical and just a year ago was examined in another genre by Lil’ Dre. The track ends with some intentional robotic effects added to Bruce’s voice to really drive home the point.
“Before” examines life before/without Christ’s loving grace and guiding hand. Beginning with the poignantly contrite “I am a fraud without You. I am a lie without You,” “Before” is an open examination that is honest and powerful. “This is my skeleton. This is my skin. I will remove this disguise. I will remove this mask… My God, I am saved by You.” In one sweeping move, Bruce shows that all philosophy without Christ’s guiding hand is perfectly empty and it is only when we empty ourselves and take on Him that we are able to drop the mask and expel the lie.
“Your War” is the most overtly “Demon Hunter-esque” track on the album, I felt. I’ve already mentioned at labor that LS influenced them, but there is certainly a bit of reciprocity to be found here on this track. Beginning with some almost tribal drums that give way to always perfect guitar work, “Your War” does have more than just a little in common with Demon Hunter’s “LifeWar” (though the differences in meter are certainly apparent) or similar fare from True Defiance. In fact, Bruce even has moments where he sounds like Ryan’s more aggressive vocals, or vice versa as it goes. Once again there is a nicely technical breakdown to be found in the mix of a very battle anthem type track.
The album closes with “Despair” and some even more incredible (almost Dragonforce intense) riffing. “Despair” features Dave Peters of Throwdown and thus nicely bookends the two guest appearances of the album at the start and end of the record. Dave’s inclusion on the track gives it a decidedly “doom metal” flavor. In terms of album flow, I would have probably preferred that either “Before” or “Your War” closed the record down. “Before” would have given it a spiritual high point to end on, where “Your War” would have closed it with fighting words. As it is, however, I can see why “Despair” was chosen as it has the most intense wandering sections on the guitar that just feel like the band is showing off at times. Add to that the fact that the closing lines are “I have taken your despair” and I both see and approve of the choice to end the album here. However, I cannot help but wonder if we will be blessed with another “deluxe edition” ten months from now to follow the precedent set by The Infinite Order.
Musicianship: It would be hard to argue another heavy album released in the last few years, let alone this one, that matches the brutal precision and technical ferocity blended with some still distinctly “thrashy” and unkempt moments as this. Living Sacrifice are living legends in the metal scene (both Christian and non) for a reason. Ghost Thief is simply fantastic from start to finish and exemplifies some amazing talent. The brutality is never overbearing, and the riffing is never trite or repetitive.
Lyrical/ Spiritual Content: If anyone doubts what I look for when I mention stellar lyrical craftsmanship, look no further. Living Sacrifice is well studied in secular philosophy and is not afraid to show that it is the job of the thinking Christian to prove just how hollow such thoughts really are. Engaging the imagery and unparalleled writings of C. S. Lewis certainly only helps when done effectively, as well. In total, Ghost Thief is one of the most well written albums of the year.
Lasting Value: Considering people are still debating the supremacy of Living Sacrifice (at least with Bruce as the frontman)’s entire discography to this day, Ghost Thief has every chance of still being on repeat in someone’s brain (given the technology for that to be a literal statement or not) ten years from now.
Overall: Living Sacrifice proved with The Infinite Order that they were back. Ghost Thief proves they never left. This is the heavy album of the year due to its engaging and nearly unparalleled musicianship, deep and inspiring lyrics, and that intangible factor that has made the band stand out in all of metal. Ghost Thief is simply a powerhouse album that fans who have been waiting three long years to get their hands on will not mind coming back to in the coming year/s until the next great Living Sacrifice masterpiece is released.
RIYL: Demon Hunter, Becoming the Archetype, A Hill to Die Upon