Dark Phantom’s beginnings stretch back to 2007, though due to very unsettled political climate in Iraq, the band wouldn’t make any headway until two years later. Their early musical endeavours were met with some hostility in their home country – or they would have been, had they been heard. In the band’s own words, with regard to playing such music: “under an Al Queda controlled situation, death was a consequence.” Still, Dark Phantom toiled, playing cover tunes at first, but eventually crafting their own sounds. Their first gig in their home city of Kirkuk in 2011 attracted a crowd, but also resulted in terror groups attacking the band’s online community. In 2012, they underwent a major line up change as their vocalist and drummer left the band and sought work in other areas “for safety reasons”. To say the journey from band formation to album release was a hard and dangerous undertaking would be an understatement. Against the odds and after years of determination, Dark Phantom finally released ‘Nation of Dogs’ – an album of hard-hitting, self-penned material at the end of 2016.
Following an intro, ‘New Gospel’ sets out Dark Phantom’s musical stall in a particularly unsubtle manner. By forging ahead with hard, pneumatic riffs that mix the best thrash sounds with a heavy melodic death crunch, they instantly show their colours. Within a few bars, the rhythm section asserts its power even more, before things briefly slow down to introduce an equally huge groove metal riff. Two distinctly different styles, both played with aplomb, it doesn’t take long at all before this Iraqi riff unit makes a real impact. With a contrast between a grinding, thrash riff and death metal infused vocal, some parallels with Burn The Priest can be drawn, but that’s not to say Dark Phantom only ever settle upon copying others. The relentless riffery leaves the biggest impression during this opener – particularly when things slow down – but there’s just enough of a hint of groove within the noise to suggest this album will feature a few genuinely killer tracks. Moving into the title track, things improve tenfold as Phantom deliver a mid paced, heavy riff that culls its influence from various old school metal bands and classic thrash cornerstones – there are big nods to Sepultura in the riff, with a faint nod to late 80s Anthrax in the way everything powers off of the drums. An aggressive, throaty growl taking root as lead vocal may be a little off putting to some, but a clean counter vocal is very welcome, while the melodic root of a screaming lead guitar solo belies the band’s geographic origins. If you can make it past that lead vocal, this track should bring some solid metal thrills on all fronts. It’s very different to ‘New Gospel’ in most respects, but really helps to show how these guys are happy to take cues from a very broad range of metal.
…And so the open-minded approach carries through ‘Judgement Call’ – a definite contender for best track – which leads with a melodic groove metal riff that’s almost Megadeth-esque, before adding a clean vocal to carry an interesting verse. By the time the chorus hits, things heavy up considerably, adding more of a thrash base and Lamb of God style voice, but as with ‘New Gospel’ – even more so, in fact – the push and pull of the two styles is what makes it work so well. Throw in a hugely melodic solo with a distinctly Arabic flair against constantly solid drumming and it’s a winner. Having built slowly upon their repertoire of sounds and influences, things start to level out by track four, but even so, ‘Unholy Alliance’ shows an adeptness for a heavy death-groove hybrid, while making a bigger feature of the bass. In terms of style it’s great, particularly once a huge, sweeping solo takes hold – and by the track’s second half, even the confronting vocal starts to appeal more than before…and certainly won’t be an issue if you’re a fan of either Lamb of God man Randy Blythe or Gojira’s Joe Duplantier.
‘Atmosphere’ powers with some tried and tested thrash techniques, adding another superb riff to the album, shifting between the fast and slow(ish) throughout; without broadening any previous musical ideas, this number sustains interest through sheer tightness and a heavy chug. ‘State of War’, meanwhile, teases with a superb bass riff before settling into another Sepultura styled breakdown, only this time to be somewhat marred by a death metal vocal. An unexpected clean rock voice carries a counter melody during a pointed hook and eventually everything comes together, but it’s certainly a track where the riff is the best feature. Proving they’re nowhere near running out of steam near the album’s end, ‘Confess’ throws a sledgehammer riff of the Machine Head school against a melodic death vocal and some shrill leads. More so than ever, the presence of cutting lead guitar helps carry this skull-pounder to victory…and with more melodic death heaviness, everything’s in and out in just over three minutes without any unnecessary flabbiness.
Naturally, some tracks work better than others, but the lion’s share of the material on ‘Nation of Dogs’ presents compositions that are both musically impressive and lyrically thoughtful. The band doesn’t always strive for originality, but with power and intellect on their side, Dark Phantom are still on their way to reaching their target audience with a very solid outing.