note from Jellybones editors
Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring by Smoulder
The newest stars of epic heavy metal lay claim to Michael Moorcock’s crown.
The Editors | November 30, 2019

Epic heavy metal is a niche microgenre, a sound perpetuated by a small number of devoted fans with a love for reverb, chunky riffs, and sword-and-sorcery novels. The genre is maintained by a common practice: the continual drawing upon old epic heavy metal bands to inspire the art made by new ones. This sort of conservative action solidifies subgenre structures throughout metal as a whole, but its effects are most palpable in a microgenre like epic heavy metal. The canon of bands, the steady pacing, the archetype of the masculine hero-of-myth… these structures, if not a part of the genre itself, certainly perpetuate themselves through its culture and following.

Smoulder acknowledges and plays with these genre structures, maintaining the ethos of epic heavy metal without remaining so restricted. In particular, Smoulder examines the hero-of-myth archetype throughout their newest release Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring, experimenting with the ways in which a metal vocalist can take on the role of a fantasy story’s central character. Vocalist Sarah Ann casts herself as noble and mercenary, as priest and king, as diabolist and genderqueer cosmic force, playing each role with absolute authenticity. At the same time, Smoulder shifts easily between power metal, speed metal, and doom metal, bouncing around the borders of the epic heavy metal sound without ever losing their way. It is this ambidextrousness that gives Smoulder’s debut its character, as both a love letter to epic heavy metal’s history and an indication of the genre’s future potential.

Appropriately, Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring begins with “Ilian of Garathorm.” There’s the framing, a faintly tolling bell fading out five seconds before the music begins. Smoulder’s two guitarists play in ‘80s-style harmony, while their bassist’s riffs and fills cut through the mix clearly. The song speeds from glacially slow to a brisk walking pace, ritualistic drums punctuating the reverb-beast’s steps. I have to call out Shawn Vincent and Collin Wolf’s phenomenal guitar work in this song, the way they slightly drag their chords greatly enhances this track’s sense of weight. In this song, Sarah Ann takes on the role of the Eternal Champion, a balancing force of Michael Moorcock’s multiverse that incarnates in multiple genders and multiple bodies over multiple universes – mirroring the five other roles in which she will act throughout the rest of the album. Just so, as “The Sword Woman” begins, she flows into the role of Dark Agnes de Chastillon, Robert E. Howard’s historical mercenary heroine who killed her way to liberation. The track is slow and menacing, each fuzzy chord an echo of premeditated violence. The album’s A-side ends with “Bastard Steel,” as Sarah Ann replaces Kit Harrington as the most convincing Jon Snow of 2019. Perhaps this is the most interesting track of the album – epic heavy metal bands seldom play at fast tempos, and this track is fast enough that it could have come from a speed metal band. This is where Smoulder’s less conventional inspirations really shine, as they accelerate Pagan Altar-inspired riffs up to Blind Guardian speeds in the span of 28 seconds. Kevin Hester makes this song - his sparing drum fills absolutely sell the quick accelerando at the beginning.

The album’s B-side begins with “Voyage of the Sunchaser,” a song that exists in the intersection between trad doom metal and Conan the Barbarian soundtracks. This is the first of the two unnamed roles Sarah Ann plays, a priest of Istar during Dragonlance’s Cataclysm. Adam Blake’s moody bass lines add a crucial hint of tension to this track, while the high guitar lines evoke the kind of eeriness appropriate for a mad theocrat’s ritual. The fifth track, “Shadowy Sisterhood,” is likely the bluesiest song on the album – a callback to the occult-focused blues-rock tracks that first spawned the doom metal genre. This Sarah Ann’s second unnamed role, an occultist who seeks power through gruesome sacrificial rites. Thematically, this song sets up for “Black God’s Kiss,” which also focuses on the search for power through infernal means. In this final track, Sarah Ann plays Jirel of Joiry, one of the first sword-and-sorcery heroines in fantasy literature. This song keeps closest to the style of Reverend Bizarre and Candlemass, almost a straight-up doom metal track and the opposite extreme from “Bastard Steel.”

Sarah Ann’s voice is neither operatic nor harsh, without fancy vibrato or inhuman distortion. It is her voice, a simple voice, with all its texture and minute imperfections. It is with guitar riffs, drumbeats, and this voice that Smoulder portrays cosmic heroes, hell-sworn countesses, and warrior kings. Most epic heavy metal bands have a niche they occupy, a set of closely related roles that the band will explore – for example, Cirith Ungol focuses on the evil powers of Moorcock’s Multiverse, Atlantean Kodex narrates European history allegorically, and Visigoth relates the stories of modern fantasy novels and games. The breadth of roles that Smoulder portrays is unique not because doing so is impossible, but because many bands simply don’t try to wear so many hats at once. Faced with the choice of doom metal or speed metal, of sword-and-sorcery heroines or popular fantasy icons, of male, female, or genderqueer characters, Smoulder chooses them all. Thus, Smoulder comments on the ethos of epic heavy metal – what makes a band an appropriate fit to present a character’s story? Genuine passion and zeal. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s no secret that this album has received much recognition this past year. Everyone from the trad metal gurus at Ride Into Glory to more mainstream outlets like Sputnik Music have reviewed Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring. The album’s widespread support within the epic heavy metal community is surely deserved. Indeed, if one wasn’t familiar with its intricacies, one might be surprised that a genre traditionally populated by white men and perpetuated by a retrospective feedback loop would be so eager to embrace the narratives of Smoulder’s debut. In truth, epic heavy metal thrives on authentic stories, whether they are Manilla Road’s nasally-sung tales of magic or Heavy Load’s stories of despair, vulnerability, and loss. The societal conservatism that could hold the genre’s narratives back is either minute or entirely gone, leaving a space that all but begs for new voices to speak up. Is the next G.L.O.S.S., the next most iconic of feminist bands, going to come from epic heavy metal? Probably not. But Smoulder’s widespread success is another sign that epic heavy metal can be home to the stories of more than the majority.