Tomorrow, April 2nd, we'll be publishing an interview with Maxwell Jeffries of Underking. Stay tuned! - Ed.
Written by: The Administrator
Please understand, dear reader, that when I say that At Hell’s Gate is my favorite album o’ the year thusfar, I’m not being dramatic for the sake of it. In March, my proposed review schedule was utterly strangled by this damn thing--garroted and left in the spring mud. Rather than checking out new stuff, or catching up on older stuff, I have found myself, time and time again, hitting repeat on Underking.
As such, enjoying this album was never in question; it was an inevitability. I’ve written pretty extensively about Underking in the past few months, and have immensely enjoyed--publicly and privately--the three pre-release singles. As such, the ultimate conclusion here isn’t exactly a secret: in this scribe's humble estimation, At Hell’s Gate is a stellar album, and Underking is an underrated talent who--if there is any justice in this world--will be turning many a headbanging head in very short order.
Underking--the moniker of the very talented Maxwell Jeffries--plays a stupidly infectious blend of traditional heavy metal, thrash, alternative metal, and NWOBHM, all encased in a decidedly modern sheen. Across the varied breadth of At Hell’s Gate, Jeffries sounds like he’s paying homage to a veritable horde of influences, while simultaneously delivers a fresh-faced take on the side of metal that revels in jubilant hooks, catchy choruses, and enthusiastic groove. Underking arrives at hell’s gate with glee-inducing energy and a penchant for catchy-as-hell songwriting, and if that ain’t enough to wet yer whistle, I can offer nothing but sympathy and condolences.
As you'll inevitably discover upon entering the fray, Jeffries is one hell of a vocalist. This has always been the case, but here, he has truly risen above a threshold of confident execution. He balances a lush richness and crisp clarity with a uniquely delicate emotive heft--even when hammering through a blood-pumping chorus, or rolling through moody territory, his approach feels...gentle. Not hesitant, I hasten to add, but rather self-aware. As a result, the sheer presence of the vocals never becomes overwhelming. It's a quality that, frankly, places Jeffries leaps and bounds beyond the majority of people attempting to make their mark in the world of deliberately hook-laden metal. If this guy was operating in the heyday of high-flying NWOBHM choruses, he would have stood comfortably beside the legends. Take literally any track herein as a prime example.
However, vocals aren't the only thing in Jeffries corner--a fact evidenced by the sheer quality of instrumental banger "Oblivion." While every track herein features the supremely rich and evocative riffs and leads one hopes for, this song is an excellent example of the level of intrigue and variety at play. And, looking at At Hell's Gate as a whole, this quality is a constant. From the NWOBHM-esque gallop of "Red Sun Rises," to the more modern alt-metal/rock style that becomes prominent on tracks such as "The Dream Is Over...," to the breakdown-adjacent death-y chug of "Embrace the Arcane," there's a lot of movement up and down the stylistic spectrum. The characteristic that ties the album together, then, is a delightful infectiousness that carries through regardless of variety in genre. While certainly never stagnant, there's nothing here overtly progressive, complex, or toeing the line of self-indulgent wankery, which ultimately allows every groove and melody to snag the listener's ear with delightful immediacy. Bottom line: if you like hooky riffs and licks, you'll inevitably find a track or two here that catches you in a boisterous bout of self-satisfied headbanging. The performances beyond the scope of guitar are quite good as well, and, while I predictably wish that there was a little more excitement in regards to the low end, I’m fairly willing to level that complaint at pretty much everyone and everything.
Lastly, one does not speak of Underking without discussing the lyrical content. While focusing on current events and issues of mental health moreso than earlier efforts, the obvious draw here are the overtly fantastical and sci-fi inspirations. Drawing from Star Wars (“Shadow I’ve Become,”) Lord of the Rings ("Red Sun Rises,”) The Witcher (“No Mercy,”) Cowboy Bebop, (The Dream is Over…”) and beyond, this album is chock full o’ references and homages. As a nerdy metalhead by trade and passion, it is quite nice to see a tracklist dedicated to a series of fandoms that I am actively invested in. It’s also nice that each track feels contained within the universe it draws influence from, which is frankly something I thought would make the album as a whole a tad disjointed--but yet Jeffries managed to present a final product that never feels compartmentalized. This is especially impressive, given the intrinsic variety in the genre department. While I would eventually love to see an Underking album that leans more into a single overarching narrative, At Hell’s Gate certainly any lesser because of a tendency for singular focus. It’s a great collection of great songs, and that is more than enough for this slumbering scribe.
I could go on, and frankly, I probably will over the course of 2021. As I stated back when the aforementioned “Red Sun Rises” was released: “if you're sick of me talking about the majesty that is one-man act Underking, you're just gonna have to get over it.” I am firmly of the mind that Jeffries has nowhere to go but up, and am excited to witness--and continue to provide commentary--as that inevitable process occurs.
In sum? If you like heavy metal, At Hell’s Gate comes highly recommended. Plain and simple.
Underking - At Hell's Gate will be released April 23rd, 2021, and can be pre-ordered here.
We provide thoughtful reviews of music that is heavy, gloomy...and loud enough to wake us from slumber. Written by a highfalutin peasantry!