Mixing influences is something that bands simply don't do that much anymore. Whether it's down to a lack of imagination, an asinine fear of alienation from their peers ("durrr that's not true metal" etc.) or simply because they're just too crap, it's painfully common to witness many bands stick to a tried-and-tested formula that we've all seen a thousand times before; snuggling into a generic, albeit reliable sound to ensure wider appeal, security, and enough album sales to generate the funds necessary for purchasing more narcissistic wank socks. As such, you can imagine my Raging Doom-Boner™ when a band like Wretched Soul not only release an album that comes stamped with a mission statement of "Let's just do whatever we want and kick the jaws off every fucker who doesn't like it", but actually manages to be one of the best records I've heard in a very, very long time.
Wretched Soul's last album, 2013's "Veronica", was far from a bad one. As a matter of fact, one could even go so far to say it was really bloody good for a (relatively) new band's first full-length release, but it was obvious that they were still trying to find a sound that sat comfortably with them. While boasting some brutality and melody in equal measures, the contrast was a little too jarring in places and the whole thing always had the underlying feeling that perhaps, with just a more more refinement and practice, we could really get treated to something absolutely colossal. Well, I'm obviously giving you some background info to build up hype for this new release, and that segue is a pretty fucking predictable one given that I mentioned how good it was at the end of the last paragraph, so I'll cut the crap: it's an improvement in every conceivable way, so much so that it actually makes other bands look bad. And not just in a "ha-ha-our-album-is-better-than-your-shitty-album" way, but it makes most other bands appear fucking lazy - such is the level of improvement on display here.
First of all, the aforementioned mix of influences has been refined to utter perfection. Very few bands can get away with marrying black, death, thrash, and traditional heavy metal into one big cacophony of sound without making it sound segmented in some way, such as the maligned 'doom bridge into thrash breakdown' gambit that gets a reaction similar to that of fanatic racism most of the time. Yes, it can work sometimes, but any effect is lost after the first fifty fucking times you've heard it. While Wretched Soul aren't COMPLETELY innocent of such things, such offences are minor and sparse, keeping things restrained enough to let it slide - but at the same time, they're really going to divide listeners with this album because of it. I guarantee that there will be people out there who will absolutely abhor "The Ghost Road" because it doesn't quite fit into snuggly the genres I mentioned earlier, because the miriad of other ideas thrown in taint the purity of what true grim blackened death is, and because their parents didn't love them enough as a child. That's fine. They're wrong as fuck, but it's fine all the same.
Second major point is just... well, the improvement in musicianship. I reiterate my stance that the last album wasn't exactly Terror Firma levels of terrible, but there's always room for that little bit of extra spit and shine from each member, and boy fucking howdy do these lads know it. Everything is tighter and more precise than ever before, and I really could drag on forever by going over how every member has improved individually, but we'd be here for an eternity. Plus, not only have I gone in circles for two paragraphs already, but I'm long overdue for my now-hourly ritualistic Ghost Road Wank™ so I'm just going to briefly focus on vocalist Chris Simmons. Who, after this, should possibly be recognised as one of the greatest vocalists in metal, as the progression in his capabilities is very apparent and terrifyingly proficient; showcasing effortless and seamless transitions from throaty growls and screams to incredibly melodic Halford-esque clean singing at the drop of a hat throughout, never missing a note and seldom pulling out the wrong thing at the wrong time. He's like the vocalist equivalent of Mike Haggar, whose arms could sna a man in two, yet give the warmest of hugs (no homo). Singing well, in any genre, is fucking hard to do. Singing well in multiple styles is possibly even harder, and being able to improve this much in this sort of timeframe is nothing short of outstanding. When listening to music, the first thing a large majority of people will pay attention to is the vocals, so to hear that Chris has put so much time into perfecting his craft brings me great hope that others might actually follow suit. Combined with the staggering improvements from everybody else in the band, it makes this album feel like a real product of love.
Annnnnnnnnnnnd BREATHE. As with many other albums I've written about over the years, it's extremely difficult to do "The Ghost Road" justice in writing without just gushing over it like I just did. The songs may be a little long, but cutting the tracklist to eight mitigates any potential for stagnation to kick in, and though Wretched Soul might appear to be a much heavier or more 'brutal' band upon first glance, the surprising amount of clean material and melody in here isn't offputting in the slightest. In fact, I'd go so far to say that the title track - possibly the most melodic on the entire album - is the best song on here. Sophomore efforts tend to be the hardest one for bands to do, because their debut album is crafted over many years, usually containing choice cuts from earlier demos and whatnot, whereas a band's second album has a stricter timeframe. Wretched Soul have taken the challenge out back and shot it in the head, like Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and made a fantastic album in doing so - I've been looking forward to this release all year, and I'm beyond ecstatic with the results. I've wanked myself down to a nub.
I repeat myself one more time: The Ghost Road is an album so good that it puts Wretched Soul's peers to absolute shame.