albums - april 2013
There's quite a buzz surrounding the release of Ursa Major's debut album. The 5-piece metalcore band from Shepperton, UK, have so far combined back-to-back touring (with other UK hardcore bands like of Brotherhood Of The Lake, Golden Tanks, Teraka and Our People Versus Your People) with independent releases through their MySpace page etc. Along the way, they've picked up local awards and earned themselves many plaudits, which are certainly justified on the strength of their first proper full album release. Old Bones combines a hi-energy hardcore intensity with the band's obvious technical flare, and an ear for the melodic end of the metal canon.
I've always understood 'hardcore' to mean thrash-rock or punk, the sort championed by American bands like Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys or Bad Brains in the 80s, or British alternative bands Crass and The Exploited which followed the first punk-wave explosion at the end of the 70s. Punk rock and heavy metal may seem like strange bedfellows, but as genres of underground music they overlap nicely in terms of attitude and the deafening intensity of their delivery, something which certainly not lost on Penelope Spheeris in her trilogy of documentaries 'The Decline Of Western Civilization' from 1980 through 1996. Added to that, the whole hardcore scene seems to have morphed into lots of new subgenres, not least the more commercial 'nu-metal' of Metallica, Rage Against The Machine and Korn, but also some of the most interesting music of this kind, made by so-called 'metalcore' bands like Converge, Atreyu and The Dillinger Escape Plan. Musicians from this new kind of music have an ear for melody as well as common old thrash, and I would place Ursa Major somewhere in the same esteemed company.
Singer Elliot Fletcher launches into that barely decipherable growl characteristic of hardcore bands, but throughout the album tempers this with the vocal range of more conventional metal singers like Ian Gillan or Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. The band pretty much follow suit, and certainly play along at the melodic end of the genre (for that a lot of credit must go to guitarists Grant Marsh and Richard Woods). It's almost impossible to escape comparisons with some of the famous bands already mentioned, and you could easily add elements of Grunge of the 90s which must have also left an imprint on this UK band, but on Old Bones there's enough to suggest that Ursa Major are marking out their own turf.
As if to highlight this, instrumental intro 'Birth' segues neatly into the raging 'Black Lights', the background voices creating an eeriness re-visited later for the album standout 'Anchored'. A song about being trapped in a relationship, Fletcher's stellar performance on the latter really runs through the gears, with the band grinding out a classic battering-ram melodic piece of anthemic metal. On this track alone you could justify the price of the entry ticket.
Critics would say that heavy metal typically mines a deep seam rather
too narrowly, but on 'Old Bones', Ursa Major aren't satisfied to play
it safe, and throw lots of stuff into the mix. So there's the blistering
intensity of a track like 'Dead Eyes', but the band also show a flare
for composition in a beautiful song like 'Clipped Wings', with its
interestingly dense sonics at the beginning, then breaking into distinct
movements with both pacing and staging. The song injects a nice change
of tempo into the album, cooling things down with a tale of dark dread,
only to come rampaging back for the take-no-prisoners 'In Death' finale.
There are many pretenders to the metal throne, but it's nice to see a young band pushing through the also-rans with a display of passion and commitment, as well as great technical ability. All the right ingredients are in place, and in a genre where being cloth-eared is more a preventative measure rather than an insult (and I admit to being woefully ignorant), you'd have to have some to miss the quality of Ursa Major on their debut release Old Bones.