Another Serious Contender For Album of the Year 2010
2010 has been a year filled with surprises. Whether it is the return of a long-lost project, the release of a stunning debut, or an unexpected masterpiece, it will surely be a year to remember. Five Deadly Venoms definitely falls into the last category for me. Though I'd heard of Shaolin Death Squad before, it wasn't until this album that I would give them a proper listen. Although I sincerely regret not being a fan during their debut album's release, I am so glad I finally jumped into Shaolin Death Squad's fanbase. Five Deadly Venoms, the band's sophomore album, is one of the best releases to come out this year. Shaolin Death Squad is one of the few bands in this day and age who can take traditional progressive metal and form it into something completely new and unheard of, while still managing to wear their influences on their sleeve. It's this striking sense of originality and distinction, perfectly blended with poignant lyrics and unforgettable music, that makes Five Deadly Venoms an essential masterpiece. Although there've been a ton of great albums in 2010, I can confidently rank Five Deadly Venoms up there with the best of the best. It's rare that I hear an album this superb, so I'll do my best to express how great Five Deadly Venoms truly is. I've got a good feeling that words won't do this terrific masterpiece any justice, though.
Shaolin Death Squad's sound is awfully hard to pinpoint. Although they surely fall under the progressive metal umbrella, they are quite eclectic. The biggest influences I hear are Faith No More, Pain of Salvation, and Dream Theater, but there's also an avant-garde touch of Mr. Bungle here and there as well. One thing that's really cool about Five Deadly Venoms are the Chinese influences throughout the album. Tracks 1-6 form a conceptual suite based on the Hong Kong cult martial arts film, "Five Venoms", directed by Chang Cheh in 1978. Another interesting sidenote is that the first song, Romanza, is actually an anonymous Spanish song. The final song, Peace Be Upon You, is a traditional Jewish song as well. This just adds an even wider range of influences into Shaolin Death Squad's sound, and it works terrifically.
As I've previously mentioned, the first 6 songs (with or without the brief intro) form a conceptual suite entitled Five Deadly Venoms, and it's an absolute tour de force. Every song by itself is a masterpiece, and when you put them together you get an even bigger masterpiece. This is surely among one of the best prog suites to come out in recent times. The other songs are equally as fantastic, with Farewell being my favorite from the second half of the album. The wordless Mischief and Epiphany is a highlight as well, combining Mr. Bungle-like carnival sounds on the keyboards and more metal-oriented guitar riffing. If I were to recommend hearing just one song on Five Deadly Venoms, it would probably be Centipede, but hearing just one song off of this masterpiece is criminal. This must be enjoyed as a full album, even though every track can still confidently stand alone. My only complaint about this entire album (and it's a good complaint to have) is that the running time is just shy of 45 minutes. Although this is surely an adequate length, I would've really been in heaven if this were over an hour. I know that Shaolin Death Squad is one of the few bands who could pull off an album like this without filler.
The musicianship is incredible. Although there are no shred-fests, every musician shows their chops throughout the album. The highlight of Shaolin Death Squad for me is probably the vocals from Androo O'Hearn (The White Swan). He has an absolutely marvelous voice that can compare with the likes of Daniel Gildenlöw and Mike Patton, which is no easy feat. The vocal harmonies with the other members are also amazing. As a whole, the vocal department of this band is honestly one of the best I've ever heard. Androo also does a great job as the keyboard player for Shaolin Death Squad. The drums from Matt Thompson (Black Ninja), who's also played with King Diamond, are great as well. He seamlessly combines complexity and power with subtlety and is an absolute joy to listen to. The two guitarists, David O'Hearn (Red Dragon) and Kenny Lovern (Black Scorpion), are great, highly diverse players. On this album you can find soaring solos, metal riffing, melodic picking, and even funky playing styles. Finally, the bass playing from Gary Thorne (White Dragon) provides a great foundation for the music. He has some truly terrific basslines throughout Five Deadly Venoms.
The production is great. It's clean and polished enough to hear everything perfectly, but there's still a bit of rawness that keeps the album from sounding over-produced. This is the type of sound that's absolutely perfect for Shaolin Death Squad's music.
When I went into hearing Five Deadly Venoms, I can't say that I expected a masterpiece. But when all is said and done, it's hard for me to call this album anything other than a masterpiece. When I say that Shaolin Death Squad is a prog metal band to keep your eyes on, I really mean it. These guys are some of the most talented musicians in the scene right now, and Five Deadly Venoms is sheer proof of this. If you like Faith No More, Pain of Salvation, Mr. Bungle, and Dream Theater, this is an absolutely essential album. This is a very confident 5 stars and a job well done on the band's part. I don't give out this rating frequently, so it's clear that Shaolin Death Squad has really earned it. I've said almost 1,000 words just to make this one point - buy this album. You won't regret it.