The first two tracks on "Hymns of Blood and Thunder" are flat-out retro metal classics! "Chaos Calling" and "Death Dealer" unearth that musty 1983 moldy-denim funk and oil the creaking leathers of the likes of CIRITH UNGOL and OMEN, but mostly they gallop forth with "Heaven and Hell"-era Iommi riffage and plaintive, melodic vocals. Their guitar and bass tones are sick and dirge-y, and the lean, low-buck power trio vibe comes through in spades. This is blacklight poster metal worth its weight in bongwater, the kind of stuff that oughta come with a stencil to airbrush a wizard on the side of your van, and it's destined to be stuck in your head for eons.
Of course, THE GATES OF SLUMBER made their name on the scene as a traditional "troo doom" band. They haven't turned their backs on that sound, either, but even when they slow it down on "Beneath the Eye of Mars", they add some analog synth and a blasphemously peppy end section to give the song a dynamic twist beyond its classic TROUBLE and CANDLEMASS vibe. On "The Doom of Aceldama" and "The Bringer of War" they mine influences from CATHEDRAL to PENANCE to create songs soaked in doom pathos, but again, interesting and inviting enough to appeal to fans outside that rarefied genre.
Things get a little formulaic as the album winds through its second half, with the overlong "Descent Into Madness" and the fairly rote "Iron Hammer" coming off as less inspired than the tunes that came before them. The momentum stops completely with "The Mist In the Morning", a goofy, Renaissance Faire-worthy acoustic bit with female vocals and some brave-sir-Robin warbling that's just weak. "Blood and Thunder" ends the album on a decent note, the best part of the second half, but still not up to the high standard set by the album's initial cuts.
It's not that unusual for an album to come out of the starting gate at its peak, and then gradually deflate into a miasma of "who cares?" But when the stuff at the beginning is as Valhalla-worthy as the songs are here, it's especially frustrating. THE GATES OF SLUMBER are a great band, and they deserve to be leading the charge for revivalist trad-metal the world over. But "Hymns of Blood and Thunder" is an inconsistent album, one that could have — and should have — been better all the way through.