There’s a subset of heavy metal albums that are must listens, albums so masterful and important that they almost transcend the genre itself. No metal journey is complete without listening to them. I’m sure you’ve just thought of a few; Powerslave, Stained Class, Master of Reality, Don’t Break the Oath, etc. Today I’d like to discuss an album that I strongly feel belongs in this category – Artillery’s By Inheritance.
I understand the gravitas of my claim. This album of course has no where near the same level of impact and influence over the metal sphere as the previously listed ones. Sadly, while Artillery are rightfully revered by the underground, they never got the same reach as some of the bands alluded to above. However, By Inheritance is an album whose musical excellence speaks for itself and earns it a spot right alongside metal’s finest. At its core, the album is a thrash metal riff-fest laden with eastern melodies. There’s really nothing else out there that quite sounds like it. The overall approach and smooth integration of unusual influences sets By Inheritance apart from the rest.
So how did Artillery arrive at this distinct style exactly? Their previous two albums, 1985’s Fear of Tomorrow and 1987’s Terror Squad, almost sound like they’re from an entirely different band altogether. These two early efforts were far more rooted in the bay area thrash sound and were closer in style to the likes of Megadeth and early Metallica than anything else. They gave us a glimpse of Artillery’s instrumental prowess, but neither album was a creative powerhouse in the same way that By Inheritance is. In 1989, after a few line-up changes, Artillery played a festival in Tashkent, a city in what was then the USSR and is now the capital of Uzbekistan. They came back from that trip inspired by the local culture and ended up incorporating a heavy amount of eastern melody in their next album By Inheritance, even naming a song directly referencing said trip: “7:00 from Tashkent”. Typically, when a band hailing from a country unexposed to it ends up incorporating eastern influence, it sounds shoehorned and unnatural. This is unfortunately true even for bands that are otherwise excellent. I grew up in a culture surrounded by this type of melody and I can safely say that Artillery’s incorporation of it in By Inheritance is tastefully done. Rather than feel forced and gimmicky, it’s an accent that’s seamlessly woven into the fabric of the album.
I can sit here and preach all day about just how interesting, unique, and different By Inheritance is, but at the end of the day, this album is excellent for one simple reason: riffs. Strong guitar riffs are the centerpiece to any heavy metal album and this record is certainly chock full of them. There are quite literally over a dozen riffs per track and every single one of them works well. However, what’s most impressive to me is the sheer variance in riffs. There’s not a single dull moment on By Inheritance. The transitions between contrasting riff and song structures are executed perfectly, making the album’s fast-paced variety feel frantic, but still cohesive. Overall, the songs are very technical and complex in nature, but they avoid the modern pitfall of technicality just for the sake of it. The songs flow together well and as previously mentioned, the eastern melodies accent the songs and feels completely natural.
While the guitar riffs and melodies are a core piece to By Inheritance, it’s the vocals of Flemming Rönsdorf that really tie the album together. His vocals are passionate and backed by a driving rhythm section allowing them to really shine. The vast majority of vocal lines are sung in a high, almost falsetto like register akin to King Diamond in some ways. Of course no one is quite like the king, but not many sound like Rönsdorf either. These type of high vocals are atypical for thrash metal and are closer to the style found in 80s US power metal if anything, but they work very well for Artillery and serve as yet another differentiation.
No vocal performance is truly complete without well-written lyrics to add depth and there’s plenty of that here. By Inheritance is a highly political social commentary on current events at the time of its recording. With tracks like “Bombfood” and “Khomaniac” (a reference to Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of Iran’s Islamic Revolution), By Inheritance on the whole is a sharp criticism of war, violence, and tension in the Middle East. Political lyrics are far rarer in the metal sphere than they are in punk and they can be difficult to execute well, but Rönsdorf makes it work splendidly. Thirty years since its recording and the lyrics are unfortunately just as relevant as ever.
Artillery’s By Inheritance is a masterpiece that has more than withstood the test of time. It has all the hallmarks of a classic metal album; strong riffs, a unique concept, powerful vocals, meaningful lyrics. It is, in my humble opinion, the greatest thrash metal album recorded – an album entirely unique and unrivaled in what it attempts and accomplishes. At the end of the day, I’m just an amateur metal writer and my words will never do an album like this justice, but what I can safely say is that no metal journey is complete without listening to By Inheritance.
Album rating: 100/100
Favorite track: Khomaniac