EVIL SCARECROW – Galactic Hunt

Evil ScarecrowNovelty bands are a tricky proposition.  If too heavily reliant on quick, easy laughs (as per early 90s oddballs Lawnmower Deth) any novelty is in danger of wearing off extremely fast; if played to deliberately offend (as was often the case with the early Bloodhound Gang recordings), the amusement is equally limited, perhaps even more so.  It takes more than a few gags to make things work, too: broad musical talent is absolutely essential  – and it’s often something a huge proportion of novelty bands lack.  Just look at the Insane Clown Posse: there’s not much musical interest there…and there’s nothing insane about two middle-aged men daubed in clownface, impersonating Cypress Hill extremely badly, all the while throwing soda pop over adolescent males in some bizarre bonding ritual.  They can keep their magnets.  Indeed, novelty acts are an odd breed and often best avoided…but as always, there are exceptions.

One such exception is the UK’s Evil Scarecrow, a troupe of musicians whose material has a sense of fun at its heart, but thankfully are musically gifted enough to match many a band in the metalsphere.  Their early releases suffer from poor production, but on their third full-length release – the crowd-sourced ‘Galactic Hunt’ – they are afforded a much bigger budget and producer Russ Russell (known for his work with Dimmu Borgir among others) ensures the final sound is absolutely perfect.   Like prog-metal maestro Devin Townsend on his coffee-infused space opera ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’, with ‘Galactic Hunt’ Evil Scarecrow have been savvy enough to ensure that the bulk of their music is so sophisticated and dense sounding – and in turn, thoroughly enjoyable – that most of the deliberately silly elements can be largely overlooked.  Ensuring their fantastic sound and quality of the music is of utmost importance, this allows the album to remain enjoyable for far longer than something with a silly concept would normally be.

This tale of a man stranded in space with a robot and facing impending terror from alien creatures is constructed around metal riffs approaching an epic scale.  Following a bombastic intro of keyboards, voices and a general feeling of darkness, ‘Rise’ cranks a hefty riff throughout – worthy enough of Trivium at their heaviest – with a twin guitar sound complimented by a barrage of double bass drum pedals.  A droning synth fills space, it’s rising in key bringing a great counterpoint to the heavier elements.  The vocals growl in a typical style for the genre, but lyrically there’s a deliberate avoidance of clichés about strength and rising up – as per Pantera’s own ‘Rise’ –  the protagonist instead questions everything with general vagueness hinting at a disaster not far off… ‘Space Dementia’ places us firmly adrift in space with a killer, a dead man a robot named Whitaker 5 (hopefully named after 1960s Doctor Who writer David Whitaker).  Musically, it’s much broader than ‘Rise’, giving a huge platform to a soaring bluesy guitar solo and a world of proggy keyboards.  With enough layers to impress most progressive metal fans and plenty of melodic guitar work nestling alongside some rather heavy moments, it quickly asserts itself as one of the stronger tracks in this collection.  With the love of science fiction story telling colliding with dark riffs, it would be easy to compare this tune to work by Arjen Lucassen’s Star One…but since Lucassen’s work is often so soulless and so absolutely devoid of humour, such comparisons probably wouldn’t be fair.  Beginning with clean sounding guitars, ‘Galacticus’ provides a brief rest from the denser elements at first, but quickly shifts into a powerhouse combination of metal riffs and throaty roars, set atop blisteringly fast drumming.  Given the speed the rhythm section attack their instruments, the lead guitars appear surprisingly casual in pace, preferring instead to find an odd companionship with the keyboards.   Dischordant, unaccompanied guitars occasionally off-set another solid arrangement, but there’s much here to love, particularly if slower, more brooding riffs are your preference.  Pulling to a close, the riffs intensify and the keyboards muscle in farther as the sound of a distress call brings an unsettling feeling that there’s something evil approaching…

The first of two noticeably weak(er) tracks, ‘Crabulon’ was also chosen as the lead track to promote ‘Galactic Hunt’.  It packs a heavy punch throughout, often driven by pounding rhythms, but it’s far less interesting than most of the album’s material.  The vocal – largely filling the quieter parts of the verse – barks in a militaristic style recounting the story of a pending attack and potential disaster.  The repeated chant of the title during the chorus is clearly designed to appeal to drunken festival crowds.  It’s not completely void, however – there’s a welcome blanket of keyboards throughout the second half and in terms of general presence this tune is huge and hard to ignore…but you’ll certainly hear better examples of the Scarecrow’s craft within most of this album’s other cuts, particularly those that experiment in a more progressive style.  Any relative disappointment ‘Crabulon’ may bring is soon forgotten as ‘Frankingstein’s Mirror’ powers along with a pneumatic backdrop and some impressive twin lead guitars.  With a hefty growl of a vocal, “killing makes me stronger” provides a memorable and meaty chorus hook (as well as reminding of the protagonist’s state of mind), while other sections employ neo-gothic choirs of voices adding depth and a dark sense of melody.  Throughout the duration of this track, each band member gives their all and the end result is as impressive as any similarly aggressive metal you’d care to measure it against.  With just as much anger, ‘Book of Doom’ begins with a positively stupid (and not entirely necessary) spoken word intro before a faultless djent riff quickly  takes a hold and a melodic death metal voice comes into play to compliment some truly fantastic riffage.  It’s the culmination of everything you’ve heard thus far, with the djent inspired elements adding something more alternative.  If you were in any doubt that these guys could really play, this is the number that will quell any doubts.  Since this features one of ‘Galactic Hunt’s most serious arrangements, Evil Scarecrow lighten the mood by signing off with a joke that’s really funny on first hearing…though far less so on subsequent spins.  Joking aside, those wanting to hear Evil Scarecrow at their best should investigate both this track and ‘Space Dementia’ as soon as possible.

Bringing more of their novelty schtick to the fore, ‘Dance of the Cyclops’ is the album’s only potential skipper, as the band recount an encounter with a gypsy and a dancing monoid – all set to a slightly irriting demonic folk waltz.  It’s constructed with love and utter self-belief – as all music really should be – but the end result sounds like a discarded Skyclad track, all mincing about and wacky lyrics.  Lacking Evil Scarecrow’s usual sophistication and general bombast, ‘Cyclops’ is too bare a musical proposition – beyond the initial amusement, there’s little to inspire those all important repeat listens.  A few will like it, maybe even love it, but it is without question ‘Galactic Hunt’s musical nadir.  From that point on, the album does not falter at all in its task of pulling this tale towards an enormous climax.  Via four numbers constructed from metallic greatness, Evil Scarecrow go in for the kill during the last twenty minutes.  ‘When Moses Goes Wrong’ flirts with an eastern sounding riff, but this secondary to a brilliant drum performance and brutal vocal, while ‘End Level Boss’ brings thoughts of 80s amusement arcades and  presents the Scarecrow in a very strong position.  The opening musical motif featuring harpsichord sounds and an electronic pulse recurs throughout, but seems slight compared to the relentless (and awesome) thrash guitar featured here.  To compliment the heaviness, a section showcasing twin leads in an unashamedly eighties style brings a huge amount of melody, while the growling vocal ensures the sonic attack never weakens.  Across the five minutes, the musicians fly back and forth between electronic melody and sheer heaviness with absolute ease – very little from their earlier releases suggests they’d be capable of an arrangement so deep, with only the jagged riffs from ‘Architect of Hate’ having teased at such complexity.

Most of Evil Scarecrow’s talents are presented in a giant melting pot during the equally complex ‘Flight of the Dragons’, as they meld a similar heaviness with symphonic keyboards and a quasi-black metal edge.  With a Nordic feel, Clean guitar work and choirs contrast the heavy sounds and as such bring something special, resulting in music so huge and powerful it’s easier than ever to forget about the album’s humour or concept.  Ignoring the sense of adventure during the closing track is somewhat harder, however, as some of its lyrics are inspired by 80s series Knightmare.  For those under thirty at the time of ‘Galactic Hunt’s release – or for those who grew up outside the UK, Knightmare was a show in which children worked their way out of a labyrinthine castle by performing tasks whist gaining tips from a jester and sagely gentleman (the latter played by Hugo Wyatt, reprising his role via a voiceover here.)  Rather wisely, Evil Scarecrow make certain that their barrage of riffs are constantly entertaining…and on ‘Enter The Knightmare’, a somewhat unexpected tribute to childhoods past, they’re as heavy than ever.  Right from the opening salvo of shredding lead and chugging rhythm, things quickly escalate into a musical storm.  Finding room for elements of black metal, a truckload of thrash and a smidgeon and an occasional death infused vocal, this would be an intense ride, but adding brass sounds (via keys) and other symphonic edges it becomes very grand indeed.

While earlier Evil Scarecrow releases could be dismissed as low-budget curios and it was utterly crucial to witness the band live for the material to come across well, this is in a completely different league.  While a couple of the numbers are below par, everything is sonically perfect; their grand concept is fully realised. With ‘Galactic Hunt’ Evil Scarecrow now sound worthy of a place among the many talented bands within the Nuclear Blast stable, but if they can make records as complete and professional sounding as this while remaining wholly independent, more power to them!

September 2014