"World Of Hurt" Review by Gregg Davidson

FOUR SKULLS

Do not believe the claims of those who smugly suggest that heavy metal is dead. Like a tenacious post-apocalyptic zombie, it refuses to lie down and die. And like any genre, after the spotlight moves on and their ride on the fame train slows down, it sometimes simply splinters into countless directions and goes underground. I assure you, the persistent pulse of metal remains strongly loud and clear if you know where to listen.In its most humble form, metal marches on in suburban Middle American basements and garages in bands that struggle to vie for time in the few remaining small venues that often are forced to book multiple groups together at bargain prices for the fan, but little if any actual coin for the supporting acts. In its most exalted modern form, live metal shows draw tens of thousands of enthusiasts to outdoor festivals where the swell of support of European audiences and those in Japan are unlike any remaining in America.Metal marches on still in the cottage communities of Appalachia with pockets of support in rust-belt, blue-collar towns like Cleveland, Detroit, and Akron, but also within the industrialized Southern states of Florida, Georgia, and Texas.Our locale is blessed to have the active presence of heavy and hard rock bands like BOBAFLEX, SPLIT NIXON, ZEROKING, BETTER DAY PARADE, STONE MACHINE, DREAMCULT, HYDROGYN, and now… FOUR SKULLS.

Comprised of skilled and pedigreed area performers, FOUR SKULLS have united to proudly fly the flag of metal with hurricane force for their debut campaign. These days it’s harder to stand out, and some bands manage to simultaneously sound fresh, yet familiar - a difficult balance to achieve, but they pull it off without repeating tired trends or jumping on new ones just to seem relevant. They instead tastefully reinterpret classic forms with modern panache.Their debut album, WORLD OF HURT, is an appropriately titled assault of ten tense tunes that are not just sonically stimulating but profoundly thought provoking.The album’s overt themes of war, pain, death, isolation, despair, anxiety, doubt, and madness are nothing new to metalheads, and their approach to these plot devices are hardly unique, but that’s where the comparisons end. Instead of resorting fully to the employment of such established metal trademarks as supernatural horror (BLACK SABBATH, IRON MAIDEN), monsters, maidens, and wizards in the classic sci-fi and fantasy slant, (LED ZEPPELIN, DIO), or the more familiar testosterone-primed Machiavellian bravado (KISS, AC/DC) that was a naturally occurring influence derived from the blues, WORLD OF HURT is literally about a young reluctant hero’s hellish foray into the terrors of war.It is quite literally a timeless tale because wisely, the soldier, the state, and the very war itself all remain nameless throughout the entire epic, allowing an open avenue of easy personification for the listener, especially so for anyone who’s ever faced a foe on the field of battle.

The riveting tale begins with “Maybe,” a tune wherein the central character is suddenly torn from his lover and their dreams of serene domesticity to face an uncertain fate in service to his country when the call comes.In “Mind Made For Me,” we witness his metamorphosis from greenhorn to soldier complete with an astute new “mindset”, custom designed for and instilled into him during an intense term at boot camp training that physically and mentally molds him into a formative killing machine.In the title track, we are there on the plane, perhaps as his only companion, while he contends with the reality of being transported to a “world far, far, away” to “kill or be killed” on his first (covert?) mission to face a nondescript enemy.In “Not Dead Yet”, a stand-out track, he experiences the misery and unimagined horrors of the foxhole, a place he begrudgingly accepts as his “home” due to his programming, but prays doesn't become his “grave”. His survival senses, both innate and augmented, quickly kick into overdrive as he makes his first kill while surrounded by the carnage and grisly remains of the dead and dying, a perfect segue way to “Holding On” where he begins to unwind after the onslaught is over, but shadows of a guilt trip begins to cloud his thoughts, threatening to unravel the hypnotic hold that his programming has upon his actions when he soberly deals with the stark realization that he's likely the last standing survivor of his platoon.Seemingly in a daze (perhaps due to lack of medical supplies and nourishment, but certainly at the very least due to his traumatic ordeal), he begins to internalize the damage to his own psyche and the mission's collateral implications.In “Living For Hope”, he becomes a stranger in a strange land, scouring the woodlands and meadows of the local countryside on a desperate quest for life-sustaining provisions. Luckily, in his first contact with civilians, he finds sanctuary and sustenance in the charitable gestures of grateful villagers who shower him with offers of kindness.“Warrior Abound” addresses his frenzied foray into objective self-detachment as he resumes his mission and connects with fresh reinforcements of fellow countrymen, but his very sanity is called into question once the combat heats up again and he makes the macabre confession “whether friend or foe I really don't care, I'll shoot you down dead on sight.”With a possible end to the war now suggested, he suddenly immerses himself completely into the task at hand, plunging headlong into the fray to face the worse combat yet in “Fight Die Bleed”, and while recovering from his wounds, guiltily tries to justify his own survival amidst the deadly melees that seem to claim so many victims.In “Why”, he concerns himself with the challenges of resuming his former pacifistic existence upon his reintroduction to civilian life as he entertains thoughts of suicide.With “1000 Souls”, the album ends like countless military careers, with the shell-shocked soldier, still haunted by the blood-stained memories of those he's slain and struggling with the psychological aspects of post-traumatic stress syndrome, attempting to come to terms with the results of his life-altering adventure.While our subject's final fate is subtly implied, it is never overtly revealed, permitting the distinctly ripe possibility of a proper sequel.

I found WORLD OF HURT an ominous study of the human experience as witnessed through the eyes of the common man hardened by the experience of being thrust into uncommon and extraordinarily stressful situations, in this case an undefined war.For that reason alone, this is the album that would certainly make a metal fan out of Dr. Sigmund Freud, "Art of War" author Sun Tzu, and "old blood and guts" himself, General George Patton. Swollen with a pervasive sense of dread and foreboding doom, it captures the dismal atmospheric presence of Slayer at their nefarious peak served up in the time-honored metal tradition of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin by heavily utilizing the first-person narrative prose style and toying with themes of schizophrenia and deep-seated psychoses a la Alice Cooper or Ozzy Osbourne.Many songs are deliciously reminiscent of now-classic metal masters Iron Maiden and Alice In Chains thanks to the guitarist’s bone-jarring riffage, scorching lead runs, and warm but crisp tone that permeates but doesn’t overwhelm the overall mix. The bludgeoning rhythm section keeps it all sewn tightly to the cloth as the wailing vocals weave into the sonic swatch with near-whispers and blood-curdling siren screams, the established blueprint for metal since the beginning.

Who are the architects behind this hellish sojourn into madness? FOUR SKULLS is a band most accurately described as a local super-group of seasoned musicians with a firm idea of how to keep it heavy without sacrificing cerebral value.The lyrics are awash in lush, graphic imagery that at times implies more than it explains without appearing juvenile, pretentious, or obsessively self-indulgent. With both sharp and gently flowing emotive inflections helping to fuel the entire work emotionally, vocalist Aaron Miller has the range and control that is required to adequately accompany the soaring guitar attack of Mick Bryan, and the thunderous pulse of percussionist Tony Pack and bassist Chip McGlone.Bryan was schooled by some of hard rock and metal's most exalted axe-slingers including Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, George Lynch, and Alex Lifeson. Pack, Bryan’s childhood friend, shared his interest in the more progressive ‘70s and ‘80s artists and the pair assembled their first cover band just in time to perform at the 1985 Boyd County talent show with bassist Bob Quillen and keyboardist/vocalist Dave Young. After graduation, Bryan and Pack formed Valkyrie, and began to land local gigs with the hard rock and metal group in and around the surrounding tri-state, but in 1987 Bryan joined Passion with guitarist/vocalist Alvin Cordle (now in Nivlla Red), bassist Duane Crisp, and drummer Kyle Virgin.When Passion dissolved, Bryan and Pack resumed working together on a new project called Tantrum, a project that would endure for twenty years. Despite being fronted by more than a couple of lead vocalists over that time, another steady member was McGlone, a dependable go-to-guy for bands in need of a versatile live bass player. Only Miller may have accrued more actual stage time that the others, fronting his covers-and-originals group the Aaron Miller Band, but also as a solo rock and country vocalist performing hundreds of shows every year locally, on the road, and especially in Nashville, his second home.

The ability of this high caliber collective of talent to put aside egos and other personal pursuits in order to come together for such an impressive project is a testament to their passion and commitment to noble undertakings, but the real beauty of this band's first offering lies in their ability to construct a virtual “world of hurt” around the central character without ever clearly defining his identity or his true mission objective, and by revealing no clues as to what his next course of action might be, they effectively blur the lines between what is real and what is imagined in the heat of the moment.Inspired by “2112”, the lush, dystopian masterpiece album by prog-rock pioneers Rush, the idea of a concept album based on human warfare initially came to World War II buff Bryan during the construction of his custom-designed high-tech home recording studio, but he credits Pack with ninety percent of the richly imaginative lyrical content.A brief paragraph of journal-like observations precedes each song’s lyrics in the liner notes, a move that adds depth to the story when one reads along while listening.While none of the group's members possess any military backgrounds, astonishingly they still manage to realistically, if vicariously, capture the essence of the field grunt and assess in familiar humanistic terms, the balance of profits and losses incurred by any soldier's personal battle with duty, morality, and loyalty, waged both on the field and within our own souls. http://www.fourskulls.net/

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