Empire State Bastard may have seemed to emerge from thin air a few months ago, but the band has actually been in the works for at least a decade. Formed by Biffy Clyro singer/guitarist Simon Neil and Oceansize’s Mike Vennart (who has also played live with Biffy Clyro), this new project is something entirely different from their previous bands and opts for abrasive hardcore and metal directions with an emphasis on experimentation. With a sound that pulls from metalcore, mathcore, grind, sludge, and everything in between, the duo recruited legendary drummer Dave Lombardo on drums to bring their ideas to life and debut full length Rivers of Heresy showcases their ability to be abrasive but still have hooks. It’s a diverse offering that is reminiscent of a slew of other artists while still pushing towards its own unique direction, providing a wild ride from beginning to end that listeners will want to keep coming back to.
What stands out the most about Rivers of Heresy over repeat listens is how cohesive it feels, despite every song offering something a bit different. Empire State Bastard feels like a love letter to everything heavy and abrasive, with some quirkiness thrown in for good measure, and in the wrong hands this kitchen sink approach could just come off as messy. But these guys pull it off, and whether they’re going for a mathcore or grindy approach, slower brooding sludge, or even some hints of alternative rock or post hardcore, everything flows together well. Opener “Harvest” explodes out of the gate with an abrasive tone and rhythms that are a bit off-balance, giving a mathcore meets noise rock vibe. “Blusher” goes for a bit more groove, but the riff around the minute and a half mark sounds more like earlier Nine Inch Nails. Then you’ve got slower build-ups on songs like “Moi” and “The Looming”, where some somber rock and even post metal/doom type riffs are utilized. I can’t think of another band in recent memory that sometimes sounds like Converge or The Dillinger Escape Plan one minute and something closer to High on Fire or even Jesu the next, but that’s what Empire State Bastard has done and it gives them a unique angle. There are a lot of standout moments throughout Rivers of Heresy, both on the abrasive and mellower side of the spectrum, with “Sons and Daughters” being a particular highlight that channels some darker atmosphere. “Tired, Aye?” is also worth mentioning as it strips things down to just fast paced drumming and vocals and is just as harsh as the songs that feature full instrumentation. Empire State Bastard has left themselves room to expand even further, but this is still an incredibly strong debut that isn’t afraid to channel a little bit of every metal and hardcore adjacent genre.
Simon Neil would sometimes throw in some screaming on Biffy Clyro’s material, but if you’re familiar with that band’s body of work you more likely associate him with softer singing. Empire State Bastard swings the pendulum as far as it can go towards the harsher side, and “Harvest” will immediately clue you in to this. Neil has an ear-piercing scream that comes in somewhere between Greg Puciato and Jacob Bannon at certain points, but there’s also some screaming/singing transitions that channel a bit more Mike Patton. It’s this abrasiveness that will likely determine if Rivers of Heresy is appealing or not, but I found the extremity to add to the material and it showcases a completely new side of Neil. That’s not to say there isn’t singing, as tracks like “Sons and Daughters” and “The Looming” utilize quite a bit of singing with some bursts of screaming in between. The transitions between the two are effective and provide some moodier breaks that will stick with you in between the speaker shredding screams.
When “Harvest” was released as a single a few months ago it piqued my interest, as it found Neil and Vennart heading off into pretty different territory and nailing that harsher metal/hardcore sound. Now that I’ve spent some in-depth time with Rivers of Heresy, it’s clear that song was just the tip of the iceberg as this debut really captures a little bit of everything loud and abrasive while keeping a fun sense of experimentation. It can seamlessly move from a shorter burst of roaring instrumentation and over the top vocals to a moodier, brooding doom/post metal song, all while offering riffs that stand out over time. There is room to take things even further and experiment even further should Empire State Bastard desire, but they’ve started off at a very high level and this is an album I expect to return to frequently. Rivers of Heresy is available from Roadrunner Records.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg