It was before even the beginning of the second track that I got a sense of how Argus’ album Beyond the Martyrs was going to play out. This is one of those albums – and by all accounts Argus are one of those bands – that you just know aren’t going to be springing any surprises.
Beyond the Martyrs is an album firmly rooted in the past, and Argus are unafraid to openly display their influences. Apparent throughout the record is the chest-thumping, battle-tinged masculinity of the heavy metal of the 1980s. Indeed, perhaps it is enough to state that Beyond the Martyrs is firmly and specifically ‘heavy’ metal, and not simply ‘metal’.
The solid, predictable nature of the record is by no means bad in itself – this is certainly a release which I found relatively easy to enjoy and like. Importantly, there is also a real sense of enjoyment coming through from the band, something which always makes me enjoy an album a little bit more. To an extent, this impression of satisfaction in the band’s cohesion is aided by the low-fi, back-to-basics ethos and production. So, I have at no stage actively disliked this album – it immediately leapt into my rough 3/5, ‘quite enjoy’ category. However, almost by definition I’ve never felt like rating this album any higher.
Personally – as I’ve said before – I always like my records to look forward and push beyond, at least a little bit. To do something unexpected or to make the listener sit up and take notice, is what differentiates a good album from a great one. This does not mean that every piece of music needs to be ‘prog’, just that it needs to progress and develop. Unfortunately, as likeable as Beyond the Martyrs is, it simply fails to move forward.
The vast majority of the eight songs on offer are so solidly similar in mood and feeling that they simply run into each other; the album’s practically over before you’ve even noticed the first song has finished and the second’s begun. There are two main reasons/problems for this repetitiveness (although the music’s not quite so bad as to call it monotonous). The first is that for the best part Argus – frustratingly – fall back on a single rhythmic underscore, the typical Sabbath/Maiden riff rhythm. Heavily based on triplets or 6/8 time, this ‘da da da-da-da’ movement is everpresent. Although this style of riff and rhythm works very well for solos and breaks from vocals, as a constant frame of reference through the album the music starts to feel a little stagnant. The worst moments are those such as the beginning of ‘Cast Out All Raging Spirits’, where it feels like Argus are reverting to type simply from a lack of better ideas.
The second reason behind the repetitiveness of Beyond the Martyrs lies in the vocals. I’ve got to admit, I’ve never been a huge fan of the classic heavy metal yelled-sung style that Argus employ, but it never usually turns me off entirely. However, in the case of this album, the vocals were one of the first things I noticed. Much like the constant rhythm, the vocal delivery was fine to being with, but it soon began to grate, especially through lack of variation or any particular emotion.
All this being said, the few moments in which Argus avoid this standard set of rhythm plus vocal style were not just the exceptions confirming the rule, but also the exceptional moments on the album.
Case in point is ‘The Coward’s Path’, which completely avoids the otherwise standard triplet rhythm. Also, the verse is the only occasion on the entire album where Butch Balich employs a much softer, ‘cleaner’ vocal style. This was the pretty much the only track which properly grabbed my attention, demanding another listen. The verse is especially well done, with an almost laid-back Metallica-esque feel, a refreshing contrast to what comes before and after. Most importantly, when the normal vocals come back or the chorus, they’re so much more effective because of the change of mood and contrast.
‘The Coward’s Path’ is both reassuring and disappointing – reassuring to know that Argus are capable of variation and development within a record, and disappointing because they rarely stretch themselves to the extent of ‘The Coward’s Path’, even though doing so would produce something potentially far more exciting.