Even Venusians like to come down to Earth sometimes.
The problem with any band sporting its creation myth as its credo is that the backstory can become bigger than the band, that its past overpowers its present. Valient Thorr—a band of Venusian emissaries who fled an at-war Venus several decades ago only to regroup in North Carolina to play rock music circa 2001—always ran that risk. Across its first three records, alien leader Valient Himself constantly reminded we humans that we needed help. Though he was right, the rhetorical philippics could wear thin quickly, especially since he was the outsider looking in, delivering mostly acerbic, impersonal observations. Delivered above and around the band's righteous resurrection of raw Detroit power, British blues metal and '80s American riffs, though, Valient's assaults were generally tolerable—potent, even.
But Immortalizer, the fourth full-length from Valient Thorr and its third for California-based Volcom Entertainment, marks two small but significant steps in the quintet's progression. Most importantly, Immortalizer works subtly to make this band of aliens a little more human, to grace their interplanetary ire with good ol' empathy. Valient Himself has always been a sociopolitical firebrand, calling for the downfall of the Bush administration, corrupt capitalists and mindless fighting. And while he hasn't exactly gone soft—"They work in the schools/ They work for the state/ They program their lessons/ to look good on your plate," he sings during the standout electro-negative breakdown of "Infinite Lives"—he sounds like he finally understands how to convince humans to do something: Identify with us first. The nails of the fingers he points are a little less sharp, and he often rallies for the blue-collared artistic underbelly with which he identifies. The heavy pop epic "Nomadic Sacrifice," for instance, is a perfect update to Metallica's "Wherever I May Roam," keyed to the new-school independent set that scrapes by constantly on the brink of big business and bankruptcy (see also: labelmates Birds of Avalon). And during "1,000 Winters in a Row"—a song that should only be about nuclear warfare, one supposes—Himself turns the global predicament of a troubled world into the personal problem of a heartbroken rocker: "A woman or a warhead could just blow up in your face/ Life and love's a bomb that could destroy the human race." If Himself hasn't been hurt by love, he knows someone who has been, and at last he relents that personal travails can trump global tribulations. Real men are from Venus, right?
Funny thing is, Valient Thorr's élan and dexterity have never enjoyed a more superhuman hour than that of Immortalizer: Gleaming and gliding and perfectly mixed thanks to producer/ engineer/ mixer Jack Endino (Nirvana, Mudhoney, High on Fire), these 14 tracks are simultaneously slicker and smarter than those of the Thorr we've heard before. Valient Thorr sounds exactly like it should right now: The dual flicker-fast riffs of Eidan and Voiden Thorr shoot through "Parable of Daedalus," countering one another with capable themes and variations. On "1,000 Winters in a Row," those same tones cut beneath Himself's decrees in resplendent harmony. The rhythm section—drummer Lucian Thorr and bassist Nitewolf—slaps with big downstrokes and mean bass grumbles during "Birdhead Looking at Goldenhands." They're the battle-axes Himself pulls from his pockets when he's singing songs about human vapidity and fallibility.
Despite the sharper sound and more endearing writing flourishes, Valient Thorr remains, as always, not for everyone. Much to the band's credit, Immortalizer includes no popular compromises—no softballs, ballads or slow jams, aside from a 78-second duet for acoustic guitars. After all, Valient Thorr tours harder than most bands you know. Shouldn't the band thrash, roar, riff and howl at just about the same clip? Or, better yet, if you thought the world on which you crash-landed several decades ago was ignoring its doom, would you take the time to tease out a hit?