Huntsmen are a band that describes themselves as “Americana metal”. Or at least they were – their latest album Mandala of Fear sounds much more post-metal, with sludge, doom, and prog blended in as well. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a good amount of their folk and country influences present too. Maybe think Americana Cult of Luna with melodic vocals – if that makes any sense? Well whatever you want to label this album, let me tell you, it is INCREDIBLE.
The band still holds on tightly to the storytelling aspect of their Americana roots. The album tells the dystopian, sci-fi story of a soldier on her first deployment, and the trials, horrors, and triumphs that ensue. The tale deals with themes of “trauma, recovery, and – ultimately – survival.” To help them tell the story, Huntsmen have brought on Aimee Bueno as a full-time co-vocalist. She previously guested on the song “The Last President” of their last album American Scrap. Her voice is a much welcome addition to the vocal arsenal of guitarist Chris Kang (clean leads), drummer Ray Knipe (harsh vocals), and bassist Marc Stranger-Najjar (backing vocals).
The album is roughly 80 minutes long, which is a fact that’s hard to convince most not to balk at. Fortunately, the songs do all the heavy lifting. There’s a ton of variety here, and because of that the album is never a tiring listen, even on the longer cuts. Right away the album starts out a winner with “Ride Out”. Much of the song sees Kang and Bueno trading lines and sharing harmonies over a swirling, proggy folk instrumental. A super aggro bridge comes in halfway through to knock everything down, with Knipe’s bellows leading the charge. The contrast is fascinating, as is the band’s climb back when the dust settles from the bridge.
Given the subject matter, much of the record is very dark. I mean, there’s literally a song called “God Will Stop Trying”, which blends the band’s Americana and doom influences to create the most heartbreaking song on the album. Elsewhere “The Silver Lining” is so apocalyptic that even Neurosis would blush. However, there is still a sense of hope underlying some of these songs. “The Swallow”, the longest track on the album, is very triumphant despite its doomy pace. The song has some massive harmonies and features one of Kang’s best vocal performances. “Awake at Time’s End” starts off somber, but ends on a positive note. The band throws a ton of curveballs in this song, even going as far as to drape jazz chords over sludge metal sections.
Both the production and performances on this album are phenomenal. The production is definitely a massive step up from American Scrap. The guitars have the right balance of grit and clarity, the drums sound powerful, and that bass tone is glorious! My favorite bass moment comes on one of the album’s highlights “A Nameless Dread”. The bass moves through the chorus like a raging bull, sounding almost like something Glassjaw would do. The chorus is anthemic, and the song as a whole goes so hard. In the course of six minutes it weaves through crushing sludge, wizardly prog, blackened doom, and anthemic hard rock. Knipe’s drumming in this song – hell, this whole album, is mind-blowing. Some of his other highlights include the tasty grooves of “Bone Cathedral” and that solo in “The Swallow”. It’s also worth noting that Knipe did the artwork for Mandala of Fear. I love when the bass and drums come together and throttle through the latter half of songs like “Awake at Time’s End” and “Colossus”.
There are several instrumentals on the album, which Huntsmen uses to show off their chops. These instrumentals have a strong sense of direction, and manage to be entertaining without becoming a full wankfest. “Pirates of The Waste” has all of the 12/8 swagger you’d expect from a song about pirates, but thankfully none of the corniness of pirate metal. “Atomic Storms” explodes with all of the fury and intensity you’d expect with a title like that. In both songs, the band makes ample use of dissonance, harmony, dynamics, and countermelodies to paint expansive landscapes. There’s also more beautiful instrumental moments too, like the eerie lone guitarwork of “Hill People Drugs” and the Alice in Chains-like “Loss”. Songs like “Awake at Time’s End” and “Colossus”, while not full instrumentals, also have incredible, extensive, and expansive instrumental sections. Through all songs on Mandala of Fear, instrumental or otherwise, Huntsmen’s riff conjuration is truly staggering.
It’s hard to find much to knock them for, however, I do wish they gave Bueno a bigger role on the album. She only sings lead on two songs (“Ride Out”, “God Will Stop Trying”), and some of her backing vocals are low in the mix. For example, the chorus of “A Nameless Dread” is fantastic, but it would’ve been great if her harmony vocal was the center of pack. Also, given the amount of instrumentals, a few like “Loss” would have been good places for her lead vocals.
Every positive epithet that was thrown at that Tool album last year would be better suited for Mandala of Fear. While they’re two different albums, both are long and expansive, so there are certainly comparisons to be made. It’s definitely a large undertaking, but the more time you spend with it, the more it unveils to you. There’s more waiting to be discovered with each pass through. It’s a long album, but that’s only because the band is just too generous. There’s still a long year ahead of us, but I’m excited to talk about Mandala of Fear again come year-end list time!
Huntsmen’s Mandala of Fear is out Friday, March 13th via Prosthetic Records. An accompanying graphic novel with drawings by Danny White is available too.
Best Tracks: Ride Out, A Nameless Dread, Pirates of the Waste, The Swallow, God Will Stop Trying
Weakest Tracks: n/a
FFO: Mastodon, Baroness, Cult of Luna, Pelican
Overall Score: A