Kreator’s 1985 debut Endless Pain arrived two years after Metallica fired thrash metal’s first shot with Kill ‘Em All—something of an eternity in the formative stages of a genre. Kreator immediately stood out, though, with their static-y guitars, frontman/guitarist Mille Petrozza’s inimitable bark, and drummer Jürgen “Ventor” Reil’s distinct combination of precision and primal savagery. So it didn’t take long for the German thrash outfit to gain ground on their elite predecessors with landmark albums like 1989’s Extreme Aggression, 1990’s Coma of Souls, and 1992’s Renewal.
Of course, if you measure the energy level of those titles next to their new album Gods of Violence, there’s just no comparison. By the same token, it would be too easy to dismiss the band’s latter-day work as just an excuse to tour. After a run of four experimental, industrial-tinged albums in the ’90s, Kreator re-dedicated themselves to straight thrash on 2001’s Violent Revolution—a move that might have signified a surrender to heritage-act status if the band hadn’t sounded so revitalized at the time.
Some of that vitality was on display as recently as last year’s Violence Unleashed EP, but Gods of Violence suggests that it might be time for another shake-up. The band’s fourteenth full-length, Gods of Violence does contain some noteworthy deviations from form. Album opener “Apocalypticon,” an orchestral piece courtesy of Fleshgod Apocalypse members Francesco Paoli and Francesco Ferrini, bears more than a passing resemblance to both the Star Wars theme and the “Mars” movement of Holst’s iconic suite The Planets.
Bagpipes appear on the Celtic-flavored “Hail to the Hordes,” while the title track intro features a solo from a 12 year-old harpist. And, for better or worse, the bright melody in the chorus section of “Totalitarian Terror” wouldn’t sound out of place in the hands of pop-punk acts like Against Me! or Anti-Flag. Mostly, though, Petrozza and Reil give us more of the same jackhammer style they built the band’s name on—only without quite as much personality or edge. Case in point: the verse riff on “Totalitarian Terror,” which sees Petrozza coming dangerously close to re-treading Slayer when Slayer have been most guilty of re-treading themselves.
At times, Gods of Violence plays like an unresolved tug of war between quintessential Kreator and grandiose symphonic metal—often in the same song. If you like both styles, you can expect to be in hog heaven. But if you prefer one over the other, you’re left to skip over certain sections of songs. “Army of Storms,” for example, hearkens back to signature riffs from the back-catalog staples “Betrayer” and “Renewal” in the verse but then abruptly switches to an operatic chorus. In general, when Gods of Violence hews towards outsized melody, it feels watered-down rather than stretched out.
Lyrically, Gods of Violence suffers in a similar way. Perhaps more than any other genre, part of the job requirement of being a heavy metal musician is the ability to come up with song titles and lyrics that look badass scrawled across the pages of high schoolers’ notebooks. If we ranked bands based on that criterion, Kreator would surely land near the top of the list. For the last 30-plus years, Petrozza has penned gem after lyrical gem, amassing a string of fist-waving catchphrases that rival anyone in metal. So it’s no surprise that Petrozza doesn’t disappoint on Gods of Violence.
Petrozza has a way of distilling a song’s chorus down to a punchline he delivers in single syllables, as if he wanted to ensure that even a child or non-English speaker could imagine a bouncing dot in their heads as they follow along. You have to be willing to indulge a little boneheadedness to get behind classic back-catalog nuggets like “Time/to/raise/your/flag/of/hate” and “Un-/der/the/gui-/llo-/tine.” But a trademark Kreator chorus makes it irresistible to sing along. You haven’t lived, for example, until you’ve sung the titular chorus of the new song “Satan Is Real” at an inappropriate volume in a setting where you’re bound to raise eyebrows.(Attention ad execs: this is the song you need for your seitan ad!)
That said, despite Petrozza’s gift for communicating directly to the angsty teenager at the core of every metalhead’s soul, his subject matter speaks to a thoughtful way of observing the world. Petrozza also has a knack for using his words to convey the opposite of what they seem to indicate on first (or even second) glance. The new material exemplifies this technique: For Petrozza, Satan is a fictitious concept that becomes “real” because people invest it with belief. “Death Becomes My Light,” meanwhile, doesn’t glamorize death in stereotypically “metal” fashion but instead looks at dying through the lens of a near-death experience. And the title track, with its chorus of “we shall kill,” is actually a life-affirming call to evolve past (and thus “kill”) antiquated modes of thinkingthat no longer serve humanity’s forward progress.
Petrozza even delves into utopian reverie with “Hail to the Hordes”—basically a heavy metal buddy anthem that offers solace and solidarity as “the failed, the outcasts… carry each other through the darkest moments in life.” But this wouldn’t be a Kreator album if it didn’t go to dark places. Originally conceived as a concept album rooted in Greek mythology, Gods of Violence frames modern warfare as a remnant of an ancient evil that has resided in the psyche for as long as our species has existed. Petrozza’s original idea was to present our predilection for viciousness as something that was “born” into our world after the gods decided to have an orgy.
It’s a rich premise—unfortunately, Petrozza doesn’t flesh it out very much in the actual songs. Gods of Violence could have used more of Petrozza’s warped take. He has renounced the audacious moves the band made during its experimental period, but at least those moves were charged with a sense of creative risk. After several albums’ worth of proving they can still recapture their classic sound, it’s high time Kreator took more risks, come what may. They’ve earned the right.