Band: Death Rides a Horse
Album: More God Than Man (2017)
Genre: doom, power metal
Where to buy: Bandcamp
As soon as More God Than Man begins, we are dropped onto the crest of Death Rides a Horse’s wave of doom and power metal. The band takes its themes from pan-Eurasian mythology, using giant chords and almost symphonic movements to describe the fates of Babylonian gods and other magical figures. Though most of us have at least heard of Gilgamesh, fewer are familiar with Tiamat, the sea goddess of Babylonia – and on More God Than Man, she gets her own song. Compared to more contemporary mythos, near eastern mythology is a lesser-mined vein of inspiration for metal, and Death Rides goes all in when it comes to dousing this particular well. Their tools are grandiose, sweeping song constructions, a foundation of doom with supporting pillars of power metal, and the kind of vision that stems from an ensemble aiming for a single, elusive target.
The opening track, “Urizen,” is illustrative of the album as a whole. The song’s titular entity comes from the unusual spiritual writings of William Blake, and represents a sort of demiurge we might liken to the prime movers of the ancient Egyptian ennead, or, more appropriately, the Babylonian pantheon. The track begins with a hard-charging riff, onto which Ida pours her deep, resonant vocals. She sings like a battle commander, rousing her troops in the service of metal. Her voice rises not from the front of her mouth, but from the back of her throat. Listen for the subtle changes in inflection as she extends long-held wails, for these begin velar and finish fronted, at the tip of her tongue. The verses and chorus give way to a breakdown, supported by a clean-tone guitar while the drums go tacit, then augmented by synthesized woodwinds. Here we get the album’s first note of proper power metal, because the slower progression soon becomes distorted and the drums pound again in classic double bass. The lead guitar solos in a 16-note riff that clearly takes its cue from Iron Maiden; finally, the opening progression is reprised for the song’s outro. All of the elements work well for their intended purpose, which is to sound dark, imposing, and desperate.
Breakdowns feature on several songs on More God Than Man. “Sorcerer” contains a short one, backed by the howl of lonely winds. The breakdown on “Death of Tiamat” contains eerie whispers that lead into the bridge verse and the album’s most mournful solo, notable for its simplicity. The final two minutes of “Jerusalem” are a long breakdown and outro, energetic in style and giving the song a note of thrash. The twelve-minute-plus “Throne of Gilgamesh” – the longest track for the most well-known of Babylonian deities – is an opus in three movements, each distinct in tone and timbre, and bookending breakdowns in the same way Babylonian dynasties bookended periods of political and social collapse.
It’s easy to forget that the religion of ancient Babylonia was not singular but plural, with nearly every settlement and city practicing their own worship of their own gods, much like ancient Egypt. A unifying syncretism did not arise suddenly or with immediate pervasiveness, and our views of multiple-thousand-year-old beliefs are prone to oversimplification. Similarly, it would be a mistake to say that Death Rides a Horse plays doom, full stop. More God Than Man certainly builds on a base of doom, but decorates with elements of power metal, traditional heavy metal, and thrash. A cursory listen might dismiss the album as unimaginative, or compress its richness uncharitably, but attentive listening reveals more happening than at first meets the ear. The choice of subject matter indicates a band not afraid to step outside the mainstream, and the musical structures also reach beyond the elementary constructions of doom. The album is subtly provocative, and Death Rides a Horse does a great job of putting it all together.