Review: Hail of Bullets “On Divine Winds”

Some albums wow me right away, while others take time and repeat listens before I recognize their merits. The new Hail Of Bullets disc, “On Divine Winds,” falls into the second category.

I’m not normally the “first-day buyer” type, but I made sure I picked up “On Divine Winds” the day of its release in October. My excitement was justified: The Dutch band’s Metal Blade debut “… Of Frost And War” was one of my favorite albums of 2008. Of all the albums I bought that year, “… Of Frost And War” is the one I still spin regularly (sorry, Opeth).

So imagine my surprise when I found myself initially underwhelmed by “On Divine Winds.” The album – the band’s second concept album based on World War II – seemed formulaic, like a warmed-over helping of “… Of Frost And War” that I didn’t necessarily need. After a few listens and half-listens, I put the record aside for a couple of weeks.

When I finally put “On Divine Winds” back into my CD player, though, I noticed the album is not a pale copy of the band’s previous work. Instead “Winds” is much more melodic than its predecessor; while the band is still grounded in old-school death metal (and what else would you expect from a band that contains members or ex-members of Asphyx, Gorefest and Thanatos?), the attention to melody – and the willingness to let the songs evolve slowly when necessary – makes the album much more complex than initially meets the ear.

The brief intro, “Eve of Battle,” is a teaser for what’s to follow, as multi-layered guitars combine with orchestral keys for an epic effect. “Operation Z,” however, erupts with a burst of high-speed violence: Considering the metal pedigree of the musicians, it’s no surprise guitarists Stephan Gebédi and Paul Baayens, bassist Theo Van Eekelen and drummer Ed Warby are such a precision machine. These guys know how to blaze, and the twin guitar solo is a surprise.

Vocalist Martin Van Drunen doesn’t have a great deal of range … but why would anyone expect “range” in death metal? What Van Drunen has in spades is passion, along with a gravelly bark that fits the musical rage perfectly. Well, “high-speed violence,” “rage” and a “bark” are all fairly common in traditional DM … but the band throws a major curve ball into “Operation Z,” when the song slows and drives into a winding, slithering, grinding interlude before doubling back for a final blast of the main riff. The band could have double-bass bull-dozed all the way through, so the decision to slow down is a welcome change of pace.

“The Mukden Incident” is slower than “Operation Z,” although “slow ” shouldn’t be mistaken for “easy listening.” The middle section, complete with dual guitar melodies, is another eye-opening moment.

There are too many excellent tracks to spend much time highlighting them in depth. Along with “Operation Z” and “The Mukden Incident,” other favorites are the excellent “Strategy of Attrition” and the slow-burning “Full Scale War.” Guadalcanal” has a great opening riff and a thundering charge.

While I try to avoid use of the overtaxed and overspent word “brutal,” there’s no other word to describe the merciless pounding of “On Coral Shores” – jeezus, that song is vicious even before it jumps from a relentless march to a armored gallop. It’s a song that gives me chills.

“Unsung Heroes” never quite stands out to me, but “Tokyo Napalm Holocaust” is a pummeling piece of work, with a driving melody line, some scary-yet-inspired guitar work and a stark, spit-it-out performance by Van Drunen. The much faster “Kamikaze” is forgettable only in the sense that it has to follow “Tokyo Napalm Holocaust.”

Finally, the outro “To Bear The Unbearable” is beautiful in it’s crushing despair. The melody is gorgeous, the mood is one of total gloom and the audio sample at the end is absolutely haunting.

I don’t know if “On Divine Winds” will join “… Of Frost And War” on my regular CD rotation, but “Winds” is a surprisingly intricate and melodic work of DM heaviness. I won’t say it’s better than “… Of Frost And War,” but “Winds” is musically more complex and calls for a patient ear to discover all its treasures. I’m very impressed. Thus far, Hail Of Bullets can do no wrong.

All we need now is a Hailz tour in 2011. Here’s the video for “Operation Z.”

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