The Phantom Tollbooth

Artist:  Extol
Label: Solid State
Time: 12 tracks/62:08 min.
In the past three or four years, Christian metal really has had a hard time of it, as many of its more prominent practitioners (Believer, Circle of Dust, The Crucified, Deliverance, Living Sacrifice) have either disbanded or gone on hiatus.  The return of Living Sacrifice and Tourniquet's release of Crawl to China have done much to staunch the decay, but, for the most part, metal has taken a backseat to hardcore and punk as the rage agent of choice among Christian teenagers.

Enter Extol. Their Solid State debut, Burial is one of the most refreshingly original Christian metal albums I've ever heard. Their mix of death and extreme metal with heavy doses of melody breathes much needed life into a metal scene that is sorely lacking in comparison with its secular counterpart. But first, the caveats.
Lyrically, Burial uncovers very little new ground.  Lyrics range from the well thought-out ("Behold the King of Life is entering the fields of death") to the bizarre ("...and death for His feet is slain") to the misconjugated ("Blessed is he who has got his sins forgiven"). Now, a couple of grammatical missteps here or there may not sound so bad, but mangling some of the most beautiful scripture the Bible has to offer really takes away from a song. Relief of a sort comes with three of the songs written in Norwegian, and all three (particularly "Jesus kom til Jorden for a do", which is a cover of Norwegian artist Arnold Borud) being relatively flowing and poetic. To be honest, the English lyrics wouldn't be such a sore point were it not for the amazing efforts of bands like Opeth and Amorphis (the latter's lyrics are drawn from Finnish national poetry). One has to wonder if perhaps Extol isn't trying to follow in Amorphis's footsteps, what with abundant quotes from the Bible. At any rate, a consultation with a native English speaker would have helped tremendously.
Musically, Extol really delivers the goods, and then some. I honestly can't recall the last time I listened to a Christian death metal album and didn't get bored; the band really took some time while writing this album to change up the song structures and keep the listener on his toes. The Solid State press release describes the band as "progressive death metal", and that isn't far from the truth. Extol has a real knack for creating musical transitions, making disparate melodies flow together. And the instrumentation! At different times, the band throws in violins, synthesizers, and even a flute to set off the heaviness of their songs. The guitars are also very well done, mixing melodic NWOBHM metal riffs with some heavy-as-stink chunk.

Also thrown in are black metal guitar parts, which, though not usually my cup of tea, really offset the deathier portions of the album well. The vocals are equally diverse, ranging from high-pitched black metal hissing to competent lower register growling to the occasional singing vox (provided by Ole Borud, formerly of Schaliach, most prominently on the standout "Jesus kom til Jorden for a do," an excellent foray into doom metal). While Extol's head growler, Peter Espevoll, isn't going to make anyone forget Jeff Walker (of Carcass), his delivery is effective and varied, and as such does nothing to detract from the band's overall sound. The rhythm section augments the guitar fireworks as well; the pounding double bass is featured prominently throughout the album, once even doing an acoustic interlude (and it works!).
Overall, I can find very little to find fault with. The production, while certainly not up to the impeccable standards set by Opeth, is crystal clear, and the style spans the gulf between death, black, and '80s British metal. Burial, in short, has restored my faith in Christian metal. This reviewer is very anxious to see how extensive touring and maturation affects the band's sophomore effort.
By Glenn Harper (02/17/99)