Throwback records are always a dicey endeavor. Hero worship and nostalgia are potent forces, and there’s some great art to be made from returning to previously mastered sounds and styles, but it can quickly turn into a schlock fest if the artist isn’t careful. After all, what was post-grunge but a well-intentioned revisitation of early- to mid-’90s bands and records that became instant classics of rock music? And who really considers post-grunge a success?
Waxen is the one-man black metal band project of guitarist named Toby Knapp. He got his start years ago as a shredder signed to the legendary Shrapnel Records way back in the early 90s, and those guitar chops show on Weihung auf Satan. He doesn’t muddy his riffs with overbearing technicality or overly-complex song structures, nor does he dumb down his chops to simple chord voices and steady four-on-the-floor rhythms. Knapp’s playing across guitars and bass have a healthy variety to them and his years of playing have given him a keen ear for tone, giving the bass a beefy and crackling lightning bolt growl and the guitars an overdriven melodic punch not terribly far from a thrash metal rendition of Van Halen.
The songs on this record lean closer to the first wave of black metal than to the second, drawing from the same prog-lite and traditional heavy metal influences of bands such as Mercyful Fate, Venom and early Bathory. To paraphrase Bill Bruford, original drummer of Yes and longtime drummer for King Crimson, the best way to sound like your idols isn’t to copy them but to copy the things they were inspired by, and Waxen proves the wisdom of this advice. The influence of classic heavy metal like Budgie and Thin Lizzy is present in the anthemic chord progressions and virtuosic harmonized guitar solos, but they retain a roughness indebted to Motorhead and the proto-thrash of the early ’80s. It plays like that old adage about 80s extreme metal, that it’s just KISS played by punks with distortion pedals, which in a way captures the gnarly beer-fueled schlocky fun of that type of metal.
This approach to inspiration for the sound and shape of the record proves to make the songs feel more vital and sincere. The death of a retro album is feeling retro. What we want as listeners is the sound and the spirit, a revitalization of something now gone and an affirmation of its quality. What we don’t want is for it feel like a chintzy knock-off peddled to our nostalgia. Waxen evades this partly by a gentle sprucing up around the edges. Knapp is tasteful with his enormous shred talents, giving the guitars tricksy arpeggios and rhythms played to a steady pulse, keeping your eye off of the technique required to play the riffs so you can focus on the feel. The vocals also get spritzed up, taking on an effects-laden electronic howl along with the black metal shrieks, sounding not unlike the vocals on the Spill No Blood record from last year. The reverb and distortion on the vocals simultaneously feel electronic, shrieked from broken speakers by a pentagram-emblazoned machine from hell, while still keeping with the cavernous lo-fi cassette sound of early metal demos. It’s a wise touch, keeping the songs modern in approach to the spirit of the sound Knapp is trying to evoke.
The value of these kinds of records is slim, admittedly; most in the scene know the lessons, and casual listeners of extreme music are most often presented the hits rather than the more experimental edges or the dusty deep cuts. However, as Dawnbringer and High Spirits have shown us, these one-man throwback projects can prove to add satisfying contemporary records to the canon of older styles and even stir the pot of modernity, prompting a satisfying return to these types of ideas and approaches. Abbath and Ihsahn, after all, two legends of second-wave black metal, both offered invigorated returns to earlier sounds mixed with modernity on their newest records, and Mastodon seems to have been reborn into a freaked out heavier Thin Lizzy. There is something to be said for this kind of thing. And it ain’t a bad record, to boot.