Sentinels by Desert StormRelease date: March 16, 2018
Label: APF Records
Sentinels marks the long-awaited return of Oxford sludge lords Desert Storm, their last album Omniscient having been released back in 2014, which is where I first became aware of them. I am a big fan of that album, which mixed traditional crushing riffs and roared vocals with a bluesier swing and impressive songwriting chops – they proved they can do stadium-sized metal balladery too, on the excellent ‘Home’.
I had a mild wave of trepidation upon reading the accompanying press release for Sentinels, then, where guitarist Ryan Cole explains “It has the Desert Storm sound, but has moved in a much harder, darker and heavier direction.” Yes, I know it is standard procedure for metal bands to big up the heavier/darker direction, but in this case it made me sit up and take notice, although not in a good way. You see, what I love about Omniscient is the mixture of lighter, stoner-ish grooves like ‘Night Bus Blues’ along with the usual mammoth in quicksand-paced tunes. You can hear traces of Clutch and ZZ Top in that albums swampy stew and it really makes Desert Storm stand out from the pack. I can’t really hear much of that in Sentinels, sadly, but there is still plenty to enjoy and it packs in a few surprises along the way.
It begins, conversely with ‘Journey’s End’, where the trademark sludge hollering moves onto shifting, multi-textured musical passages with lots of hooks and a classic metal feel. It is a strong opener, sophisticated and confident, the band stretching out, setting out their stall. ‘Too Far Gone’ throws in some black metal style breaks to keep you on your toes and again is an imposing beast, but it’s ‘The Brawl’ with its Maiden-esque galloping riff, charging into a huge swinging dick testosterone-fest that gets me stoked again. Brilliantly vivid depictions of punch ups – “bloody fucking knuckle boxing! ” – are celebrated over titanic riffage. This is the staple metal stuff they do soooo well, they make it sound easy. I wish there were a few more moments like this on the album.
They get it very right again with the ‘Kingdom of Horns’, which opens on chiming, pealing guitars and hazy, clean and contemplative vocals by Matt Ryan, who performs well throughout. Again there are many musical shifts and it is quite progressive in tone and features a fine piece of story telling that Iron Maiden or Mastodon would be proud of. The song moves into crunchier verses, but broken up by those finer textured passages, it proves you can go darker without becoming less engaging.
‘Gearhead’ is more thuggish, though possessed of strong melodies – it does remind me a bit too much of ‘Outlander’ from Omniscient though. It goes for an epic close with ‘Woah-oh-oh-oh‘ gang vocals, but they fail to really lift the song above filler-status.
Now, luckily ‘Drifter’ and ‘Extrovert’ are real swingers, with grooves as thick as Neil Fallon’s beard, ‘Extrovert’ in particular has a great blues riff and as I said earlier, when they channel Clutch they are at their most immediate. These two numbers may not stretch the band, but lift the mood after things were getting a little dour. Speaking of which, ‘Convulsion’ slopes back too the super-heavy sludge, with a occasional bursts of urgent pace and vicious attack, especially in the vocals, however it loses its way and runs out of steam a bit.
The last two tracks turn it around once more in fine style with ‘Capsized’, another classy metal ballad a la ‘Unforgiven’ or ‘Nothing Else Matters’ and ‘Outro (Thought Police)’, which is like Pantera at their most brooding.
Desert Storm have indeed produced a darker and heavier album, just as they stated. With Sentinels they still show more promise and display more ambition and creativity then nearly all their peers, no question. Personally though, I think they are missing a trick by not exploring their groovier, more lighthearted side a bit more on this album. We are living through dark times, ideal for dark music, but what’s wrong with headbanging with a smile on your face?