For those not in the know, Martyr are a heavy metal band (with elements of speed metal and thrash metal in their sound as well) from the Netherlands (specifically, Utrecht, the capital of Utrecht province and the fourth largest city in the Netherlands) that formed in 1982, disbanded in 1989 and reformed in 2005. Three of the members of the band are from the band’s founding (although their vocalist, Robert Van Haren, did not actually sing on either of their albums in the 80s, as he departed the band in 1984 and returned in 1986, missing out on his chance to appear on the band’s 80s albums as a result), although drummer Wilfried Broekman was a member of the band from 1986 up until their disbanding and was on board with their reunion from the start. The only member of the band who is relatively new is bassist Jeffrey Bryan Rijnsburger, who joined the band in 2013, making this his first album with the band due to their previous record being released in 2011. For the curious among you, the band’s previous three records are 1985’s For the Universe, 1986’s Darkness at Time’s Edge and 2011’s Circle of 8, with this record being their fourth studio record overall.
So, here we are with You Are Next and, honestly…I’m in two minds on it. On the one hand, there’s some good stuff on this record which I feel shows the band had some good ideas when putting this record together that should appeal to old school fans…but, on the other hand, the band makes some flat out bizarre decisions and puts some material on the record which just doesn’t help it, resulting in an album that feels like a real mixed bag overall.
Before I start the review properly, I want to talk about the artwork. I don’t normally do this because, well, I am completely unable to draw myself, but I have to say, when this album came through to the inbox, I took one look at the cover art and went “…That’s really the artwork for this album?” Seriously, the color pallet is too bright and makes it look more akin to something you’d expect to see in a bad comic book than on the cover of a metal album (although I will stress that I’m not saying comic book artwork in itself is bad, just that the bright color pallet of most comic books feels very inappropriate for this sort of album). I’ll be fair, it’s different from what you usually see in metal music (let alone music in general), but this feels like a failed execution of what the band were going for to me. Maybe if the artwork had a slightly darker color pallet, dialed up the shadows a bit to make the central figure look more ominous and maybe have some blood dripping from the knife, it could work really well, but, as it is, it just doesn’t do much for me.
Anyway, let me get the positives about the album out of the way now: on a technical level alone (so, looking at the performances), there’s nothing I have any huge complaints over and, in some cases, I actually have to give credit to. Van Haren’s voice is fairly good and reminds me a bit of Harry Conklin from Jag Panzer, although his voice is higher than Conklin’s, so the resemblance isn’t entirely obvious on first glance. The musicianship is fairly decent as well: nothing earth shattering, but it’s decent enough overall and you can comfortably put them on the same level as most 80s metal bands, so there’s that.
Unfortunately, everything else is where the album unravels a bit. The songwriting, oddly enough, isn’t as speedy as you might expect from a band playing two genres noted for their fast performances, with about half of the songs feeling more like they’re based on a riff that has more of a groove metal influence to it than anything else. This wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself, but then the rest of the tracks are speedy numbers that fit in nicely with what you’d expect from the band and you realise that the key problem is that there’s no main tone to the album, which leaves me wondering if the band are trying to gain new fans with this record rather than just doing their own thing (since I doubt anything which even slightly points towards groove metal is likely to go down well with the people who have fallen in love with the band’s 80s material). Not helping this is that ‘Souls Breath’ also includes harsh vocals that feel REALLY out of place on this sort of record. I don’t mind harsh vocals in and of themselves, but here, they feel like they’ve come from a different band entirely from the one we’re actually meant to be listening to, which makes their addition more of a distraction than anything else (and the fact they’re not especially well done doesn’t help). Oddly enough, there are songs on both sides which are done well and songs on both sides which didn’t do much for me, so the songwriting quality isn’t a case of “they do one sound well and one sound poorly”, but I feel that the band should have prioritised one sound over trying to balance both of them, because the balancing of both just doesn’t pay off and feels like a case of trying to please every potential listener and ends up being something that is too modern metal influenced to completely appeal to old school fans and doesn’t have a consistent enough tone to completely appeal to fans of modern metal.
The production is also a bit more questionable. On first listen, it captures the old school aesthetic nicely, but, when you listen deeper, you realise that some things feel poorly done. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be saying this about a metal album, but I feel the guitars have been undermixed because I can hear the bass guitar so clearly on this album that it actually negatively impacts the guitars (although I will acknowledge that the drums and vocals also feel like they need louder guitars than they’re being given, so it’s not a case of the bass being so loud that it dominates proceedings so much as the guitars not being as loud as they need to be), which gives the impression of this record having not been mixed at all. I don’t mind the bass being so prominent, but, when it comes at the cost of the guitars, I can’t help feeling like someone didn’t do their job properly in the mixing stage, especially considering the bass doesn’t do much of huge interest to most people! I will admit, however, that the instruments sound great overall and it feels like it has been recorded well (as the guitars still have some crunch to them without the record sounding too raw), so there’s a bright side to that. I think the mastering could also be better, as it does feel like the record needs a bit more kick to it on the mastering front, but the biggest problem is the mix for me and, if this record even gets remastered for some reason, I would prioritise sorting the mix out first.
So, really the big problems with their record are songwriting that, while not bad overall, can’t seem to decide if it wants to be an old school speedy thrasher with melodic vocals or a modern metal album and a production job that leaves the guitars fighting to be heard in the mix (which isn’t a big problem in and of itself, but, considering this is metal music we’re talking about, it feels like a pretty big error to make considering the big focus of most metal bands are the guitar riffs!). It does enough stuff right to stop me from saying it isn’t worth checking out, but I can’t recommend it either due to the issues making it hard to recommend to old school metal fans or modern metal fans. I’d say the best I can do is say that, if you like old school and modern metal and enjoy elements of power metal, thrash metal, speed metal and groove metal (though more regarding the guitar work for this last one), then you should find this worth a listen. For most other people, though, the issues with this record are too frustrating to make this really recommendable. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a bad record, I’ll admit, and the blending of genres on display is at least interesting on some levels, but I can’t say that it’s got enough good aspects to it to make me call it a good record either.
You Are Next will be released through Into The Limelight Record on the 31st of March. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.