This might surprise a few people reading this, but I had actually heard of Split Heaven before this album showed up in my inbox. WAY back in 2011, when I was just starting to view metal as more than just “screamo” (incidentally, yes, I know screamo and extreme metal are not the same thing now), I occasionally browsed a few online metal sites to get an idea of what was good stuff to check out and one of the bands that got my attention was Split Heaven with their then-most recent album Street Law. Now, admittedly, part of it was because of ‘The Devil Isn’t Fool’ (which is an absolutely awesome track, by the way!), but I was always curious to hear more about them after that record and only didn’t get around to it because I had other stuff take up my time, so having Death Rider arrive in my inbox felt surprisingly like how I felt when I met up with some old friends for a pint a few weeks back after not even seeing them for over three years: a reminder of the good old times that had been, tempered a bit with the realisation of how the years have left their mark on us all.
…I was meant to be talking about Split Heaven, wasn’t I?
Well, anyway, Split Heaven are a Mexican heavy/speed metal band that formed in 2003 (although they didn’t decide on the name for definite until 2005, alternating between Split Heaven and Lightstorm before they finally went for Split Heaven) and have released three albums prior to this one: 2008’s Psycho Samurai, 2011’s Street Law and 2013’s The Devil’s Bandit. The band’s lineup hasn’t exactly been consistent since 2012, as the band had vocalist Eligio Valenzuela leave in 2012 and his replacement, Gian Carlo Farjat (vocalist of Transilvania, a band which only released an EP in their two years of existence between 2010 and 2012), left the band in 2014, the same year that guitarist Pedro Zelbohr left the band (forcing bassist Carlo Hernandez to step up to guitars) and new bassist Pablo Ollervides joined and left the band. However, the line up has stabilized since then, with Skelator vocalist Jason Conde-Houston on vocals and the other three members (drummer Tomas Roitman, guitarist Armand Ramos and now-guitarist Hernandez) still present (no new bassist is mentioned anywhere, so I’m guessing Hernandez did the bass on this album).
So, where does Death Rider stand overall? Well, I have to admit that I like it! It’s not a flawless record, but it does a surprisingly good job overall and I have to say that is very easy to recommend it.
I will start with the vocals, because, for once, I have to give a rare comment where I’m giving praise while still having a problem with what I’m hearing. Conde-Houston’s vocals are definitely cut from the school of old school heavy/speed metal in that he has a high voice and a slightly aggressive edge that fits in well here and, while I think he isn’t an especially great vocalist in terms of his vocal tone, he definitely doesn’t do a bad job on the record. However, here is where I have to bring up the problem: as someone who heard Valenzuela’s vocals, I can’t help feeling that Conde-Houston’s vocals are a bit too tame and restrained for what Split Heaven are known for. This isn’t Conde-Houston’s fault at all, but Valenzuela had a voice that felt like he was a wild, energetic frontman even when he was just on record and Conde-Houston’s vocals, as a result, feel like a downgrade because he doesn’t have that same edge and style. Again, it’s not Conde-Houston that’s the problem, it’s just that he’s being compared to someone who pretty much blew my mind when I heard him singing and whose absence here is difficult for me to get used to. The material does suit Conde-Houston’s voice, though, so I will stress: this is just me nitpicking on this one. If I hadn’t heard of the band before now, chances are that I would have been saying that I wasn’t overly impressed with Conde-Houston’s vocal tone, but he does a solid job overall, so make of that what you will.
The band’s music, luckily, hasn’t changed too much with time, as they still play fairly speedy heavy metal which pushes into thrash metal territory at points. It’s very obvious that the guys like their old school metal, as their music brings to mind Painkiller-era Judas Priest (with a bit of Defenders of the Faith and Screaming for Vengeance for good measure) and some of Riot’s stuff (not too surprisingly, considering Thundersteel is kind of like Painkiller released a few years too early), but I also hear some subtle nods towards 80s thrash as well. It’s all fairly well done, I have to say: not the best you’ll ever hear in the world, but the band clearly enjoy this type of music and they do it well, so not a lot to complain about. I think the songwriting gets a bit less impressive towards the end of the album, but it definitely starts out very strong (with ‘Battle Axe’ in particular being a highlight due to a chorus that is simple, but very effective and catchy and some great performances across the track).
The musicians also do a great job. They won’t really get any points in terms of originality, as most of what they’re doing is fairly standard fare for this sort of music, and none of the members do anything that points towards virtuoso territory, but they play their instruments well and that’s really all that can be asked of them, if I’m being reasonable.
The production is actually pretty good as well. It’s got the old school sound down well, but it also manages to combine that with what is expected of a modern record very well, as the guitars are fairly prominent in the mix (with a decent amount of crunch to them too) and the drums are pretty clear as well. The bass is a bit on the quiet side for my liking, though. The mastering is also fairly good, being loud enough to give the whole thing a decent kick to it, but isn’t so loud that it becomes ear fatigue inducing. Overall, pretty good work on the production front, if I’m being honest!
Really, when you get down to it, the only real complaints I have with Death Rider are the mixing of the bass (which isn’t a major problem, just something I think could have been improved upon), the songwriting tailing off a bit in quality towards the end of the record (and I wouldn’t say it reaches the depths where it falls apart, just gets less good) and the vocals not really living up to my expectations due to the vocalist’s vocal tone leaving me feeling cold (and, even then, that’s only made into a big issue for me because I heard one of their previous vocalists and felt he did a better job than their current vocalist: if approached without prior knowledge, he’s actually not that bad). So yeah, if you like speed metal, this should be worth a look into. It’s probably not going to be your album of the year, but it is still a very solid album that is worth a listen. If you’re not into speed metal, then this isn’t likely to turn your opinion of the subgenre around, so you’ll probably want to give it a miss. Split Heaven fans may be a bit split on Jason Conde-Houston’s vocals, but, as a casual fan, I feel there’s enough good material to feel confident in saying that you will enjoy this album, as the material itself is actually pretty good!
Death Rider will be released on the 25th of March by Pure Steel Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.