My first reaction to the vocals on the new RITUAL CARNAGE was a startled "What the fuck???" It'd been a while since I heard this Japanese band in action — I worship their first two albums, "The Highest Law" and "Every Nerve Alive", as masterful and devastating neo-thrash classics free of any influence past 1991, so full of conviction that they vaulted over that whole jokey "retro-thrash" movement of the late 1990s and pissed on its well-deserved grave. I missed their last one, but I doubt anything could have prepared me for what I heard coming out of American expatriate Danny Montgomery's throat this time around.
It should be stated right upfront that musically, "I, Infidel" is a work of genius. This is simple, potent, unrelenting thrash in its purest, most masterful form. Riffs flail like razorwire, the drumming is impeccable, and the whole thing steamrolls by with the intensity of tightly-controlled chaos, worthy of mention in the same breath as prime SLAYER, EXODUS, VIO-LENCE, DESTRUCTION and SODOM. In fact, if it wasn't for the lure of nostalgia, we might even have to admit that RITUAL CARNAGE beats many of the masters at their own game — tighter, heavier, leaner and meaner, and given the advantage of modern recording without succumbing to any corrupting post-Noise Records-heyday dilution.
Montgomery used to sing in a harsh midrange death metal voice that suited the music perfectly, and if it wasn't a total homage to 1988 thrash, listeners were too busy headbanging until they snapped their neck to care much. Now, though, Montgomery is trying a style that recalls the nasal, atonal, quirky histrionics of Sean Killian (VIO-LENCE) or Katon W. DePena (HIRAX). Killian, especially, seems to be an influence in Montgomery's phrasing, particularly in the odd way his pitch rises at the end of every line. He's double-tracked and really loud in the mix, too, so it's not something that's easy to ignore — you just have to deal with him, on his terms, if you want to listen to "I, Infidel".
The thing is, whether it was talent or a trick of better production, Killian put this style over and managed to add a viciousness and bite to his performance that made it work (at least for some). Montgomery, as much as I hate to say it, just sounds silly. You get used to him, and rationalize that it's not so bad, and that his new method of attack is simply an acquired taste — and then it really hits you, how cartoonish and reedy he sounds, and it's hard not to bust out laughing.
It's been a looooong time — perhaps since DBC did that weird spoken-word narrator voice on "Universe" in 1989 — that vocals have so ruthlessly tanked an otherwise stellar album for me. Musically, "I, Infidel" would easily get a 9, and I daresay that I'll be giving it a lot of listens in the weeks to come, attempting to get acclimated to the vocals enough to enjoy the band's undeniable assault. But Christ, that singing is just whacked. Hopefully Montgomery can either roughen up his style a little more next time, and sound less like a ranting cartoon mouse on helium — or maybe just go back to the old style. How do you say "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" in Japanese?