Few bands have met the technical and brutal ends of the death metal spectrum as well as Hour Of Penance. Starting out as a band whose salient influences were pulled from both death and black metal, the metal quartet from the Italian capital gradually began to favour death metal as their calling, with a sound distinctly reminiscent of classic American death metal acts, such as Cannibal Corpse, Post Mortem and Immolation. Across their six records released up until this point, Hour Of Penance continued to develop their sound, marrying the bare-faced brutality associated with classic death metal whilst also indulging in more audacious endeavours with regards to the technicality of their compositions. Of course, given that the current band lacks any of its original members, such a drastic change in style over time is unsurprising. Many other bands who have attempted a similar combination of technical and brutal death metal have been met with a mixed reception from critics and fans, with some people finding such acts to focus so much on instrumental intricacies that the music loses some of its bite. Hour Of Penance, I don’t think, can be accused as being one of said groups. Their last album, 2014’s Regicide, made a compelling case for the band’s appropriation of the two distinct styles of death metal into one melting pot, with the decadent musical flourishes being utilised liberally but effectively as to not encroach on the impact of the ferocious and unrelenting brutality of the band’s sound. On their seventh and latest studio album, Cast The First Stone, I largely expected, and hoped for, much of the same from Hour Of Penance, as I saw no reason for them to yet leave behind this sound that they have spent so long tailoring. Indeed, Cast The First Stone certainly seems to pick up from where Regicide left off, with the group coming through with another impressive and well-assembled album of skillful musicianship matched with merciless brutishness.
Interestingly, the first cut on this new album, XXI Century Imperial Crusade, hints towards an ever-so-slight tweak to the band’s sound. The brutal and technical elements still remain prominent, but it certainly feels as if the latter has been reined in slightly, making room for some more melodic elements to shine through. Whilst not an all-out melodic death metal track, this song certainly seems of that persuasion, with the complete barrage of riffage seemingly attempting to introduce some legitimate catchiness to the cut. In some ways, it works as one would expect and in some ways it doesn’t. Whilst suitable for establishing this new record’s MO and the lyrical themes concerning, as the band described on their website, the “millennial conflict between West and East”, this opener is nonetheless not one of the stand-out tracks on the record, oddly enough. The rampage of riffs, despite being enjoyable as the listener is experiencing them, stampede by and then leaves the listener with few massively memorable moments from the cut. Then again, we’re given little time to contemplate this before the record blisters on into the title track from this record, which is easily one of Cast The First Stone‘s best moments. The ominous lead guitar that opens the track is made even more menacing by the trudging drumming that accompanies it, and the reintroduction of this melody towards the end of the track is a very gratifying pay-off. The changing tempos on this cut allow Hour Of Penance to work some technical musical elements in more subtly than on their previous studio effort, and aspects like the punctuated vocals and guitars over the chorus, whilst newbie Davide Billia’s drumming sustains a continuous blastbeat, sound incredibly tight. The guitar solo on this cut by lead axeman Giulio Moschini is notably more dialled down than what one could expect from the band’s other albums, but it goes down well. The soloing on much of this record is less flashy than Moschini’s usual work, with the guitarist instead opting for more melodious excursions that add a slightly different hue to Cast The First Stone than to previous Hour Of Penance releases.
The band also pull out all the stops on the third track, Burning Bright, which features a technical tinge more in-line with Regicide. The guitar harmonies on this cut stand-out from any other on the record, with the verses featuring some of the nicest axe work on the entire LP, despite competing with lead vocalist Paolo Pieri’s deep grumbles. The choppy bridge section demonstrates that Hour Of Penance have not let slip their technical abilities, and despite what I was just saying, Moschini comes through with an absolutely face-melting guitar solo, which is perhaps one of the best testaments to his talent put to tape yet. Iron Fist returns the LP’s direction more towards the melodic side of things, with Moschini’s leads again sounding embellishing rather than simply searingly skillful. This track even takes on a slightly symphonic sound to it with the added strings lurking in the background, following Pieri’s rhythm guitar whilst also adding some nice harmonies into the mix. Billia’s drumming is incredibly dynamic all over this track and much of the flavour of this composition arises from his decisions to switch between going all-out and playing with a slightly more restrained approach at times, as to allow Moschini’s leads to work to their full effect.
With Cast The First Stone being one of Pieri’s most conceptual lyrical endeavours to date, commenting on his narrative across the album’s nine tracks seems fitting. Firstly, I should say that Pieri’s voice has never stood out to me particularly amongst other death metal vocalists, nor do his abilities as a vocalist quite live up to the rest of the band’s talent with regards to their respective instruments. He is by no means a bad vocalist, but his voice often sounds somewhat dry and a bit mundane at times. Nonetheless, the solid lyrical consistency across this record thanks to Pieri makes Cast The First Stone one of Hour Of Penance’s most fluid and well-assembled records to date. Despite being a death metal band, a genre known for deliberately covering crass topics in an unapologetically outrageous and excessive fashion, Pieri’s approach to such a relevant and delicate topic as the clash of ideologies between Western democracies and Middle Eastern theocracies is surprisingly and impressively nuanced. An understandable level of emotional investment is evident in the lyrics, which is to be expected seeing as Pieri has stated that the tragic terrorist attack at an Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan in 2015, where Hour Of Penance had performed just a few months previously, was the primary catalyst for the album’s topic. Whilst the lyrical content of death metal music is often not taken too seriously, especially due to the abrasive vocals not conveying the words in the most easily-understandable of fashions, Pieri demonstrates the group to be a very mature and talented act, both musically and lyrically.
Hour Of Penance once again show themselves to be on the ball and one step ahead of the competition on Cast The First Stone. Masterful musicianship is met with compelling lyrics, crushing riffage, destructive drumming, and practically everything anyone could want from a technical and brutal death metal record. The band’s approach to death metal is even more pervasive on this record, with melodic and symphonic elements being worked in with a notable degree of dexterity. Of course, on the surface, this new record is not wildly different from Regicide, but when a band has developed a formula this good, sticking to what they know is very much so justified.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10