Rigor Mortis – Slaves to the Grave


The job of a record reviewer embraces nihilism in a way most people will never experience. Much must be removed — nostalgia for the musicians who shaped much of your teen years, sympathy for a musician who died far too young, desire for metal to awaken from its slumber — in order to clearly analyze the music and answer the basic question all reviewers should ask themselves: if I were a casual to moderately involved fan, on a limited budget, would I buy this record?

With Slaves to the Grave, Rigor Mortis returns after a challenging history. The only speed metal band with death metal influences to get signed to a major label, the band unleashed Rigor Mortis after which band politics forced out the vocalist almost all sources agree was their best, Bruce Corbitt. The band surged forward and released its instrumentally most exciting material on the Freaks EP, but completely lost direction with Rigor Mortis vs. The Earth, which reflected the band members pursuing their individual directions and losing a cohesive sound.

Now after band members have spent time in Ministry, Warbeast, and Gwar, Rigor Mortis re-form to re-take the stage and carry on where they might have picked up after that first album. Stunned by the lugubrious death of guitarist Mike Scaccia, the band soldiered on with this crowd-funded album release, still facing its greatest struggle which is that “its strength is its weakness,” and having many strong individual performers means finding direction and balance is a challenge. Slaves to the Grave takes the fast tremolo speed metal approach of Rigor Mortis and slows it down to give it the rhythmic approach of bands like Kreator, Sodom and Destruction which makes it very catchy. Into this, the band members drop varied influences from other music of the period and contemporary metal. This is not really a followup to the first album; more likely, it is an attempt to do what Rigor Mortis vs. The Earth tried to — modernize its sound and find balance between technicality and rhythmic hook choruses — but with the original lineup.

The problem with Rigor Mortis vs. The Earth is that, while it contained some of the greatest songwriting to emerge from this band, it was completely disordered, both as an album and as individual songs. Band members seemed to wander on stage to contribute their specialties, then vanish into the background as the band zeroed to a mean in order to preserve the integration of each song. With Slaves to the Grave, Rigor Mortis assert much more control over their work, but try hard to include all of their strengths. Vocalist Bruce Corbitt writes hook-heavy choruses that are highly motivational, where Mike Scaccia specializes in melodic guitar. Those two are in tension because guitar jams like to expand, where rhythmic hooks require keeping flying speed and then hitting it with dramatic tempo changes. On this new work, the band separate the instrumental bits from the song itself, creating a kind of “oasis” within the song arrangement where the guitar can unleash itself.

Slaves to the Grave takes on a number of influences. From modern metal, it inherits the trope vocals that chant in cadence with the guitars and drums in the style that Pantera (nice guys, but the death of speed metal through norming) picked up on and metalcore really took to the wall, but luckily this does not happen at full intensity very frequently. The band uses its classic technique of overloading verses so that they have two parts, a simple placeholder and a texturally more intense second half that prepares for the chorus. This gives the music more of a theater and lets the hook of the chorus integrate more with the song as a whole. Unfortunately, someone decided that mid-1980s German speed metal drums would be essential here, so most of the percussion emulates this style which not only becomes overbearing but is too simple for this music. A little Dave Lombardo influence here would improve things quite a bit. These songs fit together tightly like ancient walls and there are no random, rambling or irrelevant discursive bits, which shows the professionalism of this band.

If we went searching for a spirit animal for this album, it would probably be mid-1980s Iron Maiden. Many of these chord progressions and the general rhythms used resemble those from the speed metal years of Iron Maiden, but also, the arrangements of these songs mirror the tendencies that the NWOBHM band developed. Songs blast through verse-chorus pairs, work themselves up to a break, reprise their main theme and then launch into instrumental cool-downs. This balance allowed Iron Maiden to stay hookish but also work in the depth they knew would keep their albums from being essentially aggro-pop, and it worked for them for many years, so it is intelligent of Rigor Mortis to pick up this vein. Other influences are Testament and earlier Rigor Mortis itself, which is cited through similar but distinctively altered chord progressions and melodies. “The Infected” for example shadows “Die in Pain,” “Poltergeist” shadows the break return in “Revelations” by Iron Maiden, and other fragments show up repurposed as new riffs. Unlike earlier works, the melody in Slaves to the Grave is built into the chord progressions, giving the songs more harmonic space. Scaccia takes advantage of this with numerous instrumental passages. These show a greater study of tone than earlier works, but lack the frenetic architectures of his lead guitar on Freaks and drifts closer to the rock, metal and jazz influences of Rigor Mortis vs. The Earth. This allows songs to slow down, expand a bit, and become more distinctive because they release less on pure rhythm and more on melody.

This album offers well-composed songs that straddle the line between the raw fury of early Rigor Mortis and the instrumentally-advanced but compositionally disintegrated material of its later works. The most death metal track, “Curse of the Draugr,” and the first half the album deliver the greatest punch. The concluding ten-minute instrumental on the topic of Roman gladiators could perhaps be left off without damaging the album at all, since it is sparse in context and driven by vocals instead of guitar composition. The instrumental track sounds like the instrumentals from the later years of Death, but with less focus on pure theory and more on an emotional side to the music; metal fans will be lucky if future metal-jazz hybrids heed this direction. On the whole, Slaves to the Grave shows Rigor Mortis at its healthiest point in two and a half decades. For those who want the first album done again, it will not satisfy, but this will be more of a hit with melodic speed metal and technical metal fans.

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31 thoughts on “Rigor Mortis – Slaves to the Grave

  1. Richard Head says:

    Metalcore as an influence and movement is generally frowned-upon by DMU staff. So here’s a question to the staff and users; what do you guys think of less-mainstream (Pantera-style) metalcore? Namely Poison the Well, Shai Hulud, Drowningman? These bands were big among the hardcore/”emocore” crowd after Level Plan-style screamo died. Just wondering if anyone has anything to say regarding their sound (not necessarily the influence that they had on mallcore and radiocore bands of the early-to-mid 2000 era).

  2. Gutterboy says:

    Ha ha ha.
    What an elaborate way of dodging the responsability of judging this album for what it really is…if all your reviews on the DLA would have looked like this, Ulver would probably sound like a buyable option. What happened Brett? Did your balls drop off?

    1. Richard Head says:

      Have you read any of the Sadistic Reviews in the last handful of months? More often than not, they read like this review. It seems like the focus is to get listeners to hear what (if anything) the band does *right* so that they can take away some potentially good ideas. Old SMRs are amusing and all, but I appreciate the more constructive criticisms in the recent reviews.

      1. Good observation. We aim for constructive criticism to shape the genre toward health and then, new heights. We cannot do this without engaging the current musicians, industry and audience and pointing out exactly what, in painstaking detail and simple text, is going on that succeeds versus what fits into the background noise of generalized pop music. Both easier and harder than the SMRs and DLA, but the latter is more fun because it allows for artistic/philosophical/structural analysis.

        1. trystero says:

          I dont understand how that fits with the review (damned with faint praise, obscured under a lot of technical explication). Its a dishonest style and insults the intelligence of the audience. If a review cannot make clear whether the reviewer ever wants to listen to the album again then I dont think its worthwhile. It cant simply be an exercise in abstraction, where an album is deconstructed and presented like a sashimi platter. There is an emotional component to music which is entirely missing from this… analysis.

          What succeeds is not a matter of technique, or of arranging parts in a certain way is it? It is a matter of spirit. Surely that must also be commented on. Otherwise if all of this advice were to work all we would get is the same shit metal, only a bit better structured.

          1. Richard Head says:

            The judgment in the end doesn’t need to fall at one of two extremes. This review basically said that the album will satisfy those with a particular taste but falls short of expectation overall. It also talks about some cool aspects of the music but makes clear that the iniual performances, while cool and all, actually pull the album into incohesive bits. That is as straightforward as you could want. There is nothing dishonest about saying that there are good and bad things to be had here. The reader is left to judge for themselves, and how is that a bad thing?

            1. This review basically said that the album will satisfy those with a particular taste but falls short of expectation overall.

              It’s slightly more complex than that. I think it exceeds expectations, however is probably not bang-on for style, but avoids the problem of the previous album which was that it sounded like a band with no direction. This has direction, but it is a combination of more modern styles with 1980s Iron Maiden and jazz-influenced 1970s guitar rock bands, so it’s not going to satisfy many of those. However, don’t be fooled… this is a quality album. It suffers from some unevenness however and a lack of the manic intensity that made Rigor Mortis and Freaks so standout, but at the same time, it is more musical than those albums.

              If there were a short easy way to summarize this album, it would have been used. This is a complex situation and an album with many things to recommend it, but a style that many that appeal to many metalheads.

            2. trystero says:

              Saying there are good and bad things in the album isnt really saying much at all is it? It doesnt really go as far as saying that however, the language used is far too neutral for such a conclusion. You get that meaning from reading between the lines only. If one was entirely unaware of context in this regard, this review could even possibly seem like an endorsement. Is it? I like speed metal and melodic metal but I think this album is poor (its not horrible though); not because it isnt the first album either. It will please certain fans of speed metal and melodic metal, but stating that misses a pretty important point no?

              I dont know why you mention extremes, I am referring to the absence of mention of the emotional content of the music, the part that touches you. It is difficult to describe and needs to be stated in metaphor usually. If you look at the DLA reviews for instance (not saying this needs to be a DLA review) they are chock full of metaphor.

              Could you point out for me what you base your statement …falls short of expectation overall on from the review?

              1. this album is poor (its not horrible though)

                It’s a good album; is it a good metal album, or a good album for metal fans?

                I think it will do quite well with the heavy metal crowd because of its inherent musicality, which surpasses past Rigor Mortis works.

                In terms of spirit and aesthetic, it will probably not thrill those who are fans of death metal. Mainly because of simple song structures and a slower, less frenetic and acerbic approach.

                It’s a good album: less of a musical chaos than Rigor Mortis vs. The Earth, but also less pure intensity than the first two.

                1. Richard Head says:

                  When I mentioned falling short of “expectations” I really should have used the word “standards” instead. The standards by which this album is being judged include the band’s earlier output, which is considered to be of quality. So if the music on this album falls short of that quality, it can still be said to be good but in fewer ways. That’s what I mean by judging in between two extremes. Sorry for implying that you suggested that judgments should come down in a binary fashion. I was just using the two extremes (quality, not quality) to demonstrate the vast middle ground.

                  1. trystero says:

                    Thats quite fair, just a little misunderstanding. No worries.

                2. Coming Christmas I’m gunna ask Santa to fill my stocking with this here album. Thanks alot for this review.


                  -Billy , the little kid who likes good things and bad things about metal albums.

                3. trystero says:

                  Brett let me tell you one difference between this album and the previous one. Rigor Mortis vs. the Earth has highs that make up for its lows. Mummified, Contagious Contamination and maybe City in Fear are great songs. Maybe a tad simple, but Mike Scaccia has really blossomed and demonstrates this well. On Slaves, while there is perhaps a wider understanding of harmony, it doesnt really touch that peak of expression that is the hallmark of this band. I am not talking specifically about the first album either, all three of their previous releases are quite worthwhile. This not so much.

        2. Richard Head says:

          Sadistic reviews are appropriate when there are a few bad bands among many decent and even good bands. But when shitty bands make up an overwhelming majority, it quickly becomes redundant to cast mockery upon all of them, and obviously you figured that out before most of the readers did. Now is indeed the time to be sifting for gold, and we get stuff like Ripper and Disentomb as a reward for such patience. Worth it. Keep it up please, don’t be affected by the naysayers.

    2. Did your balls drop off?

      I told you “no teeth.”

      1. tiny midget says:

        hairy balls.

        i’ve actually have to look up to see a pair. when i have to.

        i see the world from a different perspective than most.

        maybe that’s why i’m wiser.

        1. Reminds me of Miss Jane Marple.

  3. veien says:

    To put it this way, is it not altogether impossible to make a decent album out of the ingredients and style of metalcore. Sometimes we might get to caught up on the specifics…

  4. Amar Akbar Anthony says:

    It’s a very good review… Shows a lot of more depth, and the analysis and the comparison made with Iron Maiden was unexpected
    But spot on …
    There is always something you can learn here everyday
    p/a Somehow the prediction of this reviewer reminds me of the movie ” a man for all seasons” … Don’t know why …

    1. Amar Akbar Anthony says:

      Correction situation not prediction

  5. Seriosuly you guys didn’t notice that this is a power metal album? It’s Iced Earth and Pantera all the way. It’s better I’ll grant you that but there is way way way too much guitarsturbation.

  6. Phil says:

    Is that skeleton holding a selfie-stick?

  7. Phil says:

    What the fuck is this stupid mood shift halfway through “Poltergeist”? I thought this was a song about SPOOKY GHOSTS. Feels like I’m watching a topless Tom Cruise wax his jetfighter out on the open highway.

    1. Richard Head says:

      I think that imagery you’ve conjured says more about you than the music.

      1. Phil says:

        I think you just betrayed your latent paranoid homophobia.

        1. Richard Head says:

          Oh but I’ve been a paranoiac homophobe for many years now. Joke’s on you.

  8. ODB says:

    This is a FANTASTIC, musical heavy metal album that will appreciate in value with time.

  9. Noktorn says:

    Brett Sephens I’m glad your taste finally matches those of us at the Metal Archives !!

    1. Spaceplacenta says:


  10. Shit 666 says:

    Sounds like a Gwar album.

  11. Pony Tail Gunner says:

    Fellers attention here please:
    Runner up for best metal album of the year is an old NWOBHM
    band that has been criminally underrated, Soldier – Chronicles realeased this year will surely be among the very best metal realeases.

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