Death metal is a tricky genre and writing and releasing consistently good death metal to a fanbase as finicky as the death metal fanbase is even trickier. Bands are forever walking the tightrope of staying trve to their “sound” and their fanbase, yet having to innovate within a stiflingly constricted space. Rome’s Hour of Penance are no strangers to this struggle and have had their fair share of victories and missteps in their catalog.
It is an absolute mystery and an abject point of shame that the Roman blackened death metallers in Hour of Penance have released eight records over thirteen years and yet have flown under the radar for that entire time. Starting off as a straightforward death metal band, Hour of Penance have been steadily “blackening” their sound since 2010’s winner, Paradogma. I have personally followed their progress as a fan since Paradogma, reveling in how amazing that record, and how bonkers good its predecessor, the bonkers The Vile Conception was. Admittedly, I began to lose interest in Hour of Penance after Sedition’s godawful production values which marred great songwriting. Regicide and most recently 2017’s Cast The First Stone did nothing to tickle my fancy, and I had all but given up on the band. That was, right until I heard Flames of Merciless Gods, the first single off Misotheism and by Jove I am back on the hype train!
Hour of Penance have always been the spawn of genre firebrands that came before them. They borrow Nile’s Phrygian pomp, Behemoth’s blackened sensibilities and general anti-christian imagery, albeit without the art-school faux-grandiosity that their Polish brothers are unfortunately mired in, and throw in Vader’s no-nonsense approach to steadfast death metal chops. The aforementioned single, Flame Of Merciless Gods opens with a blackened arrangement that is as equal parts evil, brutal and memorable, something Behemoth wishes they could write in 2019. The single sets the tone for Misotheism and the record could not be better served by any other singletrack. In contrast, HOP takes a page out of the thrashier Vader on Lamb of Seven Sins and Dura Lex Sed Lex (Latin for “The law is hard, but it is the Law”). The chorus of Dura Lex Sed Lex is straight Emperor worship black metal and is incredibly gratifying. Throwbacks to previous records are strong on tracks like Blight and Conquer and Sovereign Nation which is very Paradogma-esque and are easily recognizable as Hour of Penance signature tracks.
Slower sections like in Fallen From Ivory Towers and the intro to Iudex (Latin for Justice) show maturity and provide a much-needed breather from the constant beating, and actually draws focus to heavier, faster sections by virtue of setting up a contrast. Hour of Penance is best served in these mid-paced ominous rumblings as plainly seen on tracks The Second Babel which has anthemic chordwork again reminiscent of Nile and Behemoth which tees up ripping solos and blazing double bass sections with more success than tracks with fewer dynamics. Album closer Occult Den of Snakes is a strong way to end a strong record, and hopefully gives listeners a taste of the direction Hour of Penance hopefully pursues on future material. It is a welcome change and fully demonstrates how Hour of Penance is at their strongest when they are not trying so hard to be the fastest, most brutal, relentless band in the Roman empire.
Owing to their shaky history, I am compelled yet will gladly point out that Misotheism has the best set of tones, mixes, and overall sound since Paradogma which Hour of Penance sorely needed, as stonewalled over-compressed production all but killed their progress over the last few years. The guitar tones are chunky yet crisp, the drums are pristine, the bass is present, yet a tad under-represented, and the vocals cut all the way through. A relieving step in the right direction! New yet veteran-to-the-genre drummer David Billia is in top form on Misotheism, with his lightning-fast double bass and blast beats and is a great addition to the roster. Guitarist and longest-serving member Giulio Moschini is largely responsible for the signature riffs, blistering solos, songwriting, and general sound that we associate with the band.
As previously mentioned, Hour of Penance suffers most when it leans too hard on its sense of ferocity and urgency and sacrifices contrast, dynamics, and any kind of build-up. Misotheism has made giant strides in rectifying that problem and shows momentum in the right direction, yet stumbles when listener fatigue sets in. When every section is written as a feverish crescendo, there is nowhere else to go but down, and that is when songs begin to blend into one another, and the overall experience is dulled down. To further bolster this gripe, Paolo Pieri’s vocals are extremely monotonous, in tone, timbre, and cadence. At their strongest, they are a gruffer version of Behemoth’s Adam “Nergal” Darski, but become percussive, bland, and easily forgettable incredibly quickly. It is understandable that when a frontman has double duty as a guitarist in a technically demanding band like Hour of Penance, the vocals take a backseat, but even a small amount of divergence from the same exact delivery over eight records would go extremely far to help the entire package.
Hour of Penance have finally given us the album we were promised years ago, but never quite got, with Misotheism. This is a solid forty minutes of blackened death metal that will grab the listener with a blinding fury in its entirety, for better or for worse. Hour of Penance has been honing their art to near perfection and have clawed their way to the top with an album of which they can be proud.