Photo Courtesy of Prosthetic Records
Two years after its full-length debut American Scrap, Chicago metal outfit Huntsmen have returned with a bluesy concept album more than twice the length of its predecessor. Mandala of Fear, the band’s 85 minute sophomore effort, immerses listeners in a hostile desert world to which even God has turned a blind eye.
Mandala’s sonic narrative, which is bolstered by a 32-page graphic novel, follows a lone soldier traveling through an endless wasteland. The album’s energetic, Close to the Edge-channeling opener, “Ride Out,” sets up the hero’s long journey with the ominous lyrics, “it feels like summer has arrived/somewhere far away/across the poison sea.” The acoustic guitar-featuring track introduces the story’s biggest uncertainty: will the protagonist make it to her destination or will she fall victim to her surroundings?
The release’s lengthier songs supply gradual answers to that question. The album highlight “God Will Stop Trying” injects listeners with a hearty does of nihilism. Aimee Bueno, who has previously collaborated with Huntsmen, sings the haunting opening portion of the song, delivering grim lyrics such as, “in the dark of the night/just your will and a knife/you can dig the fear from your soul.” The heavy track goes on to claim that at some point humans will be on their own to fend for themselves, much like the album’s protagonist, and really excels in capturing the mood that’s sought after by most post-apocalyptic movies and video games.
Mandala of Fear’s lead single, “A Nameless Dread,” further alludes to the dismal world the Huntsmen built on this album with lyrics such as, “with God so long gone/I do what I can/and I’ll burn the whole world until it eats from my hand.” The song is definitely a slow burner and features a standout scuzzy guitar solo before being taken to a close with a rusty bass line. It’s also worth mentioning that the song includes one of lead singer Chris Kang’s most thought-provoking lyrics: “A nameless dread/horizon glowing red tricks your eyes into seeing sunrise.” Even in a new world order, nothing appears as it seems, and the record’s songs shifts from serene to chaotic with little forewarning.
Several instrumental cuts on Mandala do a great job of conveying a turbulent and unpredictable landscape without the aid of lyrical support. Tracks such as “Atomic Storms” and “Pirates of the Waste” evoke treacherous post-apocalyptic scenes using staccato guitar riffs and careening chord progressions. Notably on “Pirates,” drummer Ray Knipe, who also painted the album’s cover, makes the song memorable with his stellar performance and excellent fills. In addition to instrumental tracks, the band also shines toward the end of “Awake at Time’s End,” closing the extended track with a powerful crescendo.
The album’s final two songs do a good job of wrapping up the narrative. The 11 minute penultimate track “The Swallow” compares the protagonist’s journey to that of a bird with Kang’s resigned vocals stating, “only she knows the miles she has flown.” With guitars that alternate between sludgy riffs and swirling melodies, the song offers musical climax to the story arc while the final track, “Clearing the Sand” offers a resolution with key lyrics such as “cast rocks into the ocean/feel the tide again.” The song’s title connects to the album’s name referring to the last step in the creation of a traditional Buddhist mandala. A cleansing guitar ends the song by washing away all of the tension that came before and fading out like the sun setting over the sea.
But, for every song that furthers the story, not every track on Mandala is essential to understanding its narrative or even enjoying the music. The sparse, airy guitar interlude “Hill People Drugs” adds nothing but more time to this release, and the four and a half minute “Bone Cathedral” is unremarkable despite having one of the release’s most badass names. Mandala of Fear’s main drawback is its challenging length, and winnowing its tracklist would have gone a long way to make its music more impactful.
As far as art concerned with a post-apocalyptic dystopia goes, Huntsmen’s Mandala of Fear doesn’t venture into many uncharted territories. But as a concept album, it succeeds in delivering the imagery, mood and threatening atmosphere expected from an oppressive desert world. Building off established post-apocalyptic tropes, the band uses its sophomore album to add its own perspective to the ever-expanding genre of sci-fi survivalism.