In honour of The Force Awakens, I wanted a Star Wars-themed article, but also wanted something a little different and unique. So here’s a concept album about Darth Vader, by a melodic-extreme metal band called Hoth, whose logo is in the shape of Darth Vader’s TIE fighter.
Their bandcamp is here, for those of you who have already made up your mind to buy the album based on the above paragraph.
Don’t be fooled by the ‘extreme’ tag, though – yes, all the vocals on this disc are a harsh rasp similar to bands like Immortal (except for the vocally-ambitious King Diamond cover in the bonus section), but the riffs themselves take root in traditional metal structures and melodies, tempered with more extreme devices like tremolo picking on some of the riffs, making for an immensely catchy experience. The term ‘Iron Maiden-esque’ wouldn’t lead you too far astray in describing some of these leads.
There’s a surprising amount of variety here, with a number of soft, atmospheric instrumental sections. The band commits to these with gusto, and aren’t gunshy about making them a meaty, substantial part of a given song – I would almost be tempted to make a comparison to Opeth, were it not for Hoth’s lively riffs as opposed to Opeth’s more stately approach to songwriting.
Of course, ‘gusto’ and ‘anthemic’ are, I would argue, essential to the Star Wars musical experience. You’d be hard-pressed to name a series with more consistently inimitable music: in terms of modern pop classical, John Williams’ six (now seven) Star Wars scores sit at the very top of the heap for good reason. (I would argue that Murray Gold’s best material comes close, but I’ll leave it there before I start talking about Doctor Who in an unrelated article again.)
These scores take the spirit of Star Wars – the epic tragedy of Anakin, the archetypal struggles of good and evil and the humble versus the power-hungry, and the rag-tag rebellion against a dark empire – and they distill it into motifs that make you want to stand up and cheer, or look on in wonder as colossal starships pummel each other with laser fire. And, of course, you have the dark Wagnerian strains of the Imperial March, quite possibly the most recognizable ‘villain theme’ of the 20th century and beyond.
Bottom line – metal’s energy, power and boundary-pushing excitement go with Star Wars’ musical pallet like white on rice. So Oathbreaker does, I think, live up to the spirit of what we mean when we say ‘Star Wars music’. There are some extreme metal enthusiasts who would rail against melody taking a front-seat to bone-cleaving riffs in this musical form, but who would really want this to be just another generic black/death metal album? This is Star Wars! It’s supposed to be anthemic, soaring and extroverted! And this album definitely succeeds at that. I would normally just review the album’s merits in a vacuum, but this warrants a special exemption on my part because of the larger musical sphere it wants to be a part of.
If you’re not much into harsh vocals, don’t worry – these are fairly legible even to untrained ears, and these goblin-rasps contrast nicely against the melodic-extreme music. I do sometimes get at some bands’ harsh vocals for having a lack of variety or dynamic range, because harsh vocals, as a general rule, reassign singing to a rhythmic role as opposed to its usual melodic role (some harsh vocalists use the form to create a truly alien and unsettling soundscape with their voice, and some use it as an excuse to hit basically one note their entire career), but they succeed here in part because the music keeps things interesting and does most of the heavy lifting.
Of course, this is not the only time metal music has tackled Star Wars: prog metal bands Mundanus Imperium and Arjen Lucassen’s Star One have both made songs about Star Wars; Swedish power metallers ReinXeed made a song about it on their Welcome To The Theater album; Nordic black metallers Immortal infamously snuck the Imperial March into their song Pure Holocaust, tweaking the melody just enough that they couldn’t get sued.
Needless to say, Hoth took the concept and ran with it to its natural endgame: Oathbreaker lyrically follows Anakin’s fall from grace, although the final song Despair leaves off where Revenge Of The Sith left us (actually, most of the lyrics here deal with the events of Episode III), leaving us in a rather bleak place as the music fades away. Naturally, as this album is not an official Star Wars product, you won’t see actual character or place names getting dropped in the lyric booklet, but – put it this way, it’s still super-obvious what this album is about.
Just as Star Wars is fairly accessible even if you’re not into science fiction, Hoth’s Oathbreaker is attention-grabbing even if you’re not into melodic extreme metal. And in both cases, they’re sterling examples of each.