Sludge-metal has definitely found a home in 2018, particularly in the case of new bands looking to break out and repopulate a genre that’s been relatively starved for new blood for a while. And for the most part, they’ve managed to impress as well, with Barbarian Hermit making an incredibly solid first step and Boss Keloid broadening their reach for one of the underground’s true thrillers. Breaking out is the operative term for both of those acts – be that into something wider or just the scene as a whole – but for Hull’s Battalions, that hasn’t quite been as high on the agenda. That’s not to say they couldn’t do it if they trued – three albums in just as many years is a difficult work ethic to top by anyone’s standards – but considering how highly lauded they’ve been in the underground and the titans of the genre they’ve been able to share the stage with, it brings a certain fittingness into Forever Marching Backwards’ title, at least in reference to the process of being in a band.
In terms of the actual music though, that title couldn’t be further from the truth, as this third full-length is just as watertight a culmination of sludge and hardcore as Battalions have become renowned for, and arguably even more refined here. It’s actually most akin to the path that Mastodon began to travel on The Hunter, taking the usually-expansive genre conventions and condensing them down for much more instantaneous hits that still pack all the grizzled, gnarled grooves that sludge-metal is known for. They do a great job too, especially with Phil Wilkinson’s fried roar of a voice that captures the punk and hardcore spirit that comes from paring back songs like this. But of course, this is a sludge-metal album, and Battalions are well aware that the best way to succeed is by cramming as many fat, seismic grooves in as possible. Even from the opening title track with its low, swampy snarl complemented by a wonderfully unhinged vocal performance, nothing about this album feels unnecessary, or as though Battalions are artificially including material that doesn’t need to be here; every track serves a purpose, and pruning them back only makes the finished product more cohesive.
What’s even more impressive is how little of this is down to any sort of originality or novelty, purely because there really isn’t any. With the exception of the vocal style (and even then, that can be something of a stretch), there’s nothing out of the ordinary for sludge-metal on this album, yet Battalions feel so much fresher and more alive than others comfortable with shameless rehashes. Even a track like Vaseline (G)Love, the instrumental track that, in a genre where musical versatility is hardly paramount, has an excitement and a borderline rambunctiousness that feels so naturally likable. It certainly helps that Battalions are as adept as musicians as they are, rarely straying out of their comfort zone (though when they do, the results are positively searing like the solo on Tyskie Vampire), but in the command of groove and growl, as well as a heft that admittedly doesn’t reach the limits of some of their contemporaries but is impressive nonetheless, it’s hard to really pick faults in compositions as tight-knit as these.
And that ultimately leads to an album that, while hardly anything new, only continues the galvanisation that sludge-metal has been undergoing all year, with perhaps the most emphatic and enjoyable example of that. It’s easily the best that Battalions have ever sounded, and even if it doesn’t push them to the forefront of the genre (which really isn’t the point, but still), Forever Marching Backwards has so much potential to open new doors and take this band to exciting new places within the underground. Yes, they won’t be breaking out of there any time soon, but that doesn’t matter; this is easily a great album, and among the best that the genre has produced this year.
For fans of: Mastodon, Raging Speedhorn, Barbarian Hermit
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Forever Marching Backwards’ by Battalions is released on 30th November on APF Records.