From channeling Converge and Fantomas to Slayer legend Dave Lombardo's incredible drum work, Biffy Clyro side-project Empire State Bastard just put out one of 2023's best extreme metal albums with Rivers Of Heresy

Empire State Bastard's Rivers Of Heresy is the heavy album Biffy frontman Simon Neil has been waiting years to make

Empire State Bastard
(Image: © Gavin Smart)

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Empire State Bastard were conceived on a Biffy Clyro tour bus roughly a decade ago, as the Scottish band’s frontman Simon Neil and long-time live guitarist
Mike Vennart shared their tastes in extreme, obscure music. Biffy, though, were never quite like this, even back when they specialised in stop-start anti-anthems and bit like a jaggy snake. Everyone always knew that Simon could scream, but here it’s like he’s dredging the blackness out of his soul and spitting it out for all the world to hear. And Mike, who is the chief musical composer in the project, keeps listeners suitably on edge throughout.

“I set about making the most fucking poisonous vile music I possibly could, just unabridged hatred in musical form”, hesaysofthemindset that led to this extraordinarily vicious album. The line-up is completed by live bassist Naomi Macleod from Bitch Falcon and a drummer you might have heard of: Dave Lombardo. There are a couple of moments on Rivers Of Heresy – particularly on Palms Of Hands and segments of Sold! – where the Slayer legend’s propulsive double bass underpins a raging thrash metal torrent. It’s perhaps his time in avant-metal supergroup Fantômas that is more relevant, though, as Empire State Bastard mine a multitude of different approaches.

Opener and single Harvest slams into life on a succession of harsh, sludgy riffs as Simon shrieks, ‘We’re flirting in the park / Snorting ketamine / Like I’m supposed to.’ It’s a beautifully ugly introduction but far from one-dimensional, as alt rock guitars jab and weave while the screams are interspersed with semi-spoken parts and vocal yelps straight from Mike Patton’s wordless Fantômas playbook.

Blusher is less than three minutes of grinding noise, before Moi? changes the tone with a slow, sparse bass and the first moment of recognisably modern Biffy-style clean singing in Simon’s Ayrshire accent. Even so, there’s a creeping sense of paranoia about it, even before the filthy stoner riffs start to land and the vocals degenerate back to screams. And then there’s the stunning Tired, Aye?, which sees the vocalist riding an irresistible Lombardo groove with no guitars or other layers to get in the way. If you’ve got one of extreme music’s most revered drummers onboard, you might as well show him off, right?

Mike Vennart clearly knows his way around a subgenre or two, and there
are hints of everything from Melvins’ tortuous sludge metal to Converge’s furious hardcore, not to mention the songs and segments that defy any easy categorisation. It all ends with the claustrophobic progscape of The Looming, which seems to meditate on mortality under a growing weight of noise and little plinks of electronic melody that shed a little light in the darkness. Rivers Of Heresy might have been 10 years in the making, but it’s more than worth the wait. This is a superbly twisted debut, and an album that’s hopefully only part of an ongoing journey. ’Mon the Bastard!

Paul Travers has spent the best part of three decades writing about punk rock, heavy metal, and every associated sub-genre for the UK's biggest rock magazines, including Kerrang! and Metal Hammer