SLEEPY HOLLOW is a band with quite an unusual history. Debuting their first album in 1991, it took until 2012 for the follow-up Skull 13 to come out with more or less the same lineup. After adding drummer Allan Smith to the fold, guitarist and overall band mastermind Steve Stegg eventually would seek out the braintrust of Delaware mythic metallers ALTAR OF DAGON, bringing on vocalist Chapel Stormcrow and bassist Rich Fuester to round out the quartet for Tales of Gods and Monsters (out now, Pure Steel Records).
Opening like more albums should, it cannonballs right into the sledgehammer assault of “Black Horse Named Death”, a terrifically pounding, groove-laden number that showcases Stormcrow’s commanding bellow. The transition from the thicker, heavier sound away from the classic speed metal that characterized the first two SLEEPY HOLLOW albums is reminiscent of BLACK SABBATH’S Ronnie James Dio period. This is high praise, and I do not use it lightly.
In the next song, “Sons Of Osiris,” Stormcrow brings in a completely new dimension both vocally and lyrically. This is not even taking into account his vocals themselves: a vibrant, powerful baritone in stark contrast to the sometimes uneven wail of ex-vocalist Bob Mitchell. Stormcrow deftly navigates polysyllabic passages that would leave other vocalists tongue-tied. Not only does this give a totally unique cadence to his vocals, it also means all of the songs tell an engaging story. The album is well-named, as the “Tales” crafted in each song make each one feel like a mini-epic.
In what has to be considered a downright brilliant move by Stegg, the short “atmospheric” intro that seems almost mandatory on modern metal albums is reserved until the third track, “Alone In The Dark”. This just might be the most effective use of the standalone intro track since JUDAS PRIEST’S “The Hellion”! “Alone” is a purely modern-sounding interlude that carries more tension than a guitar tuned to F#. The palpable sense of dread and fear builds right into lead single “Bound By Blood”, with a cavalcade of riffs from Stegg and Fuester that will have every head in the house banging for the entirety of its length.
If ever a song DEMANDED the use of pyrotechnics, it is one of the crowning jewels of this album, “Goddess Of Fire”. Between Stegg’s brilliant Loomis-esque leads, Smith’s propulsive drumming, Stormcrow’s vivid lyrics, and Fuester’s god-like bass chops, this should be the soundtrack to the most badass fantasy movie ever. The drum track should be taught in music classes, from the understatedly nuanced kick to the perfectly-choreographed fills. This is the sound of seasoned professionals working together to make a classic.
Every song on this record has at least one catchy riff to grab your interest, one vocal hook that will get stuck in your head, and the interplay between members is nothing short of excellent. But something is missing and it’s not until that something appears on the song “Baphomet” that its absence is really felt. Stormcrow intones “Now you know who lurks below / Speak his name…BAPHOMET!!!!” For a brief moment, a beast is unleashed as Stormcrow suddenly pulls out a harsh vocal for the final word.
Referring back to his work in ALTAR OF DAGON, it suddenly becomes apparent that we’re not getting the full Chapel Stormcrow experience. The dark, menacing songs in the second half of the disc could benefit from the type of varying tempos, unusual song structures, and, yes, harsh vocals, that Stormcrow’s other band exhibits. This is not to say that they are lacking – in fact “Shadowlands” and “Creation Abomination” are among the album’s most memorable tunes – but the truly exhilarating verse and bridge of “Time Traveller”, for example, don’t end up going anywhere when they could easily have anchored a “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”-style epic. There’s not a single weak track here, but the possibly label-mandated adherence to a certain style ultimately leads one to wonder where this album could have gone if it had taken a few risks. Regardless, the new SLEEPY HOLLOW has all the makings of a classic, and I expect nothing but great things from this lineup both live and in studio.
STANDOUT TRACKS: ALL OF THEM