Cambridge produced one of death metal’s finest records of 2021 with the sinew-snapping debut from Celestial Sanctuary. During that time another band in the city had to take stock of their predicament and reassess their future after yet another line-up change. That band is Akilla, who triumphed against all odds as a touring quartet in 2022 with appearances at HRH Vikings and a career-defining show in Iceland. Though at the other end of the spectrum, their brand of symphonic melodeath has more in common with Hertfordshire legends, Countless Skies, than the Swedish icons of the 1990s. Those in the know had this record on their wish list since the group’s sophomore single came out in February 2020. But do they deliver on the excitement or dash our hopes?
It’s no secret that Scream Blast Repeat grew weary of melodic death metal years ago. As one of the most stagnant and predictable sub-genres around, its focus on anthemic choruses and stage pyrotechnics has turned it into a movement that’s easy to lampoon. Akilla have no place among these mediocre European bands that dominate the festival circuits. Their music is harsh yet chivalrous. Opener, ‘Winds of Winter’, comes to life with a thundering riff and gory vocals like Amon Amarth injected with the force of modern Carcass. Yes, they seek the Nightwish chorus as if searching for the holy grail, but they flex their muscles and celebrate their menace with a dramatic sway of head-spinning guitar crunches along the way. The agitated groove in the intro to ‘Serpent & the Son’ will remind you of Metallica’s ‘Through the Never’ but with Bolt Thrower’s forward march. Can you feel your fingers digging into an imaginary air guitar?
Vocalist, Ross Wilson, directs his voice to a savage range of animated growls throughout The Gods Have Spoken. They’re neither too monotone nor too melodramatic. Likewise, the fretwork of he and David Hill (Elimination) ricochets like tank fire in ‘Queen of Heaven’ as uplifting string arrangements and aching guitar bends contrast with chunky rhythms. ‘Song of the Seafarers’ is the closest they come to a European metal cliché with its heroic scale harmonies in the chorus, but they get the balance right with vicious thrash metal posturing in all the critical places where you’d expect keyboard-heavy bombast.
Akilla stay away from the dissonance of modern death metal and stick with the foundations of Western music theory, which might seem odd for a band that base their songs ‘on ancient myths and legends across various cultures.’ This works wonders when they place the sharp metallic riffing at the centre of the action and let the effulgent choruses speak with an earth tremor. But you want to hear something with no keyboards, no oxygen uplifts, no enchanting fantasy elements. The Gods Have Spoken has the crisp guitar tone and clear drum engineering to wade in on the more brutal side of death metal, yet the band prefer to trace the steps to Valhalla and imagine the listener’s emotions touched by the presence of a deity. ‘Echo’ is too long and too predictable to bring the album to a close. Yet the lead guitar phrasing and precise alt-picking rhythms in ‘Cosmica’ reminds you that the Cambridge quartet have the chops. They ask the question: are you battle-ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good?
Though they run out of spiky guitar riffs in the last two songs, there’s no doubt that Akilla’s debut enhances the listening experience with a sense of the dramatic. Melodic death metal seldom sounds so invigorating as this even if its obsession with clenched fists and heart-thumping gestures put it in the blockbuster category.
Release Date: 02/06/2023
Record Label: Self-released
Standout tracks: Serpent & The Son; Blood and Bone; Cosmica
Suggested Further Listening: Countless Skies – Glow (2020), Aephanemer – A Dream of Wilderness (2021), Amon Amarth – The Great Heathen Army (2022)