Oxford sludge metallers Desert Storm have been consistently releasing solid albums and building a name for themselves on the metal circuit for well over a decade; laying waste to many a gig venue across the UK and Europe.  Previous releases, in particular 2014’s Omniscient and 2018’s Sentinels, have been heavy Sabbathesque stoner affairs featuring a bluesy swagger; bringing to mind a British version of Clutch, with vocalist Matt Ryan sounding like Neil Fallon’s distant Oxfordshire cousin.  Desert Storm’s fifth full length, Omens, was due to be promoted with an extensive tour this spring, including a show at the acclaimed stoner rock festival Desertfest 2020 (an appropriate festival in more than just name), before life and society as we know it was turned on its head.  Hopefully the tour will be rescheduled for the future and fans get the chance to witness Omens in a live setting.

Omens begins with the spoken word title track, a sinister dark poetic sermon cajoling the weak to submit to an evil presence, before leading into one of the album’s highlights.  ‘Black Bile’ has a disturbing video featuring an expressionless plague doctor following unfortunate souls infected by a disease.  Bearing in mind the video appeared online a few months ago it may only be a coincidence but with the current climate it seems chillingly relevant.  Musically it’s sludgy with dark surging guitars and gruff vocals, which eventually give way to clean harmonies and the earworm vocal refrain “as these organs begin to fail”, which, during the current pandemic feels a little close to the bone.  There’s no holding back as ‘Vengeful Gods’ continues in a similar vein with thundering riffs, low slung bass and  Matt’s deep vocals summoning his inner Viking.

If the first half of Omens felt more in keeping with Desert Storm’s previous output, the latter sees them take more risks.  ‘Pain, Grief and Suffering’ is thrashy with chugging staccato riffs and vocals that sound similar to Robb Flynn of Machine Head.  Surprises are in store halfway through though, as the music slows before the unexpected entrance of enchanting keyboards.  This may set alarm bells ringing for the diehards, but fear not, normal service is resumed shortly.  Until that is, the guitars let rip with a monumentally huge guitar solo, not something currently heard too often these days.  The song is a mixed bag, much like the remainder of the tracks, ending with a curveball in the form of ‘Rebirth’.   A surprising end to the album, essentially a folk song in the same vein as ‘Home’ from Omniscient, with finger picked acoustic guitars and clean vocals.  It’s immaculately played, but does tend to rob Omens of the momentum that has built up over the course of the record; a rather subdued, if technically impressive, ending.

Omens seems the work of a band going through a transitional phase; moving away from their roots, heading towards something bigger, dare I say, more accessible to a wider audience.  Matt Ryan’s chameleonic vocals showcase a larger range than before, shifting effortlessly between gravelly growl and impressive clean harmonies; a crucial weapon in their armoury.  However; the frequent forays into a spoken word narrative in what sounds like a creepy middle class accent are a little unnecessary and tend to be served with a side order of cheese.  Desert Storm have evolved; playing a more progressive form of metal, although there are times when they don’t even play metal, veering off to testosterone fuelled rock and folk.  It’s a bold move, but at times Omens feels a tad confused.  Over time the broadening of sound and the spreading of wings is understandable, but Desert Storm are still at their best when they assault the senses with their trademark pummelling stoner grooves.

(6/10 James Jackson)