“Omen of Disease”

By Thor

Broken Hope’s “Omen of Disease” is the first album from these Chicagoland forefathers of brutal, guttural death metal in 14 years.  While 2013 has been the year of comebacks for extreme metal bands, with new albums out by Carcass and Gorguts, a return to the scene by Broken Hope is perhaps the unlikeliest comeback of them all and one this reviewer thought impossible not that long ago.

Before the band was put on ice back in 2000, longtime bassist Shaun Glass quit, eventually playing guitar in the top-selling radio-friendly rock act Soil, and original drummer Ryan Stanek was asked to leave for committing bad business shenanigans.  Meanwhile Joe Ptacek—arguably the best death metal vocalist of them all, quit shortly after recording 1999’s “Grotesque Blessings”.  The band toured Europe in support of that album with a cobbled-together line up and amid growing tension and disillusionment.

After the ill-fated tour, Broken Hope’s remaining core members moved on.  Over the next decade, guitarist and song writer Jeremy Wagner focused on fiction writing and started the band Lupara, while lead guitarist Brian Griffin made a career out of running sound and tour managing some pretty substantial gigs including Ozzfest and Lamb of God.  And then when rumblings of a Broken Hope reunion/reformation started coming from Camp Wagner, tragedy struck.  Founding member and integral band element Joe Ptacek shot himself and died in 2010.

It’s in this context that over the past three years Broken Hope has somehow reformed, toured twice, and released a brand new album through Century Media.  And the verdict?  Against all odds…legitimately ALL odds…”Omen of Disease” is a really good album, one that’s significantly better than anyone could have reasonably expected it to be.

The most important thing that “Omen of Disease” delivers is the “Broken Hope sound”.  This version of the band once again features Wagner on guitar and songwriting duty and Shaun Glass is back on bass, but as most experienced musicians will attest, that’s not quite enough.  The new members, Gorgasm’s Damian Leski on vocals, newcomer Mike Miczek on drums, and shredder Chuck Wepfer on lead guitar have done something sort of unprecedented in extreme metal.  This line up toured with old Broken Hope material in 2012 before any new material was written.  So when it came time to write new material, these new members all seem to have co-opted certain key stylistic peculiarities of the original members they’d replaced and implemented those signatures into their own repertoires.  The result is an uncannily faithful representation of a band that’s mostly brand new.

No one had more pressure and expectations to meet than Leski.  To put it simply, this dude had some really big fucking shoes to fill.  And while I’m a fan of his other band, Gorgasm, I had my doubts.  But lo and behold, Leski sounds a hell of a lot like “The Esophagus”—the late, great Joe Ptacek, and he even affects a Ptacek-like physicality on stage.  Again, he has no business accomplishing what he’s accomplished in surpassing what most people thought was possible—nobody does.  But somehow he has, he deserves much praise.

Drummer Mike Miczek is a Chicagoland kid who’s an encyclopedia of extreme music as well as arguably the best drummer Broken Hope has had for their particular style.  Moreover, he brings youth and energy to precisely where a death metal band needs it most.  And let’s be clear, speaking as a drummer myself, original drummer Ryan Stanek had an extremely odd, unique style that I hadn’t heard before I’d discovered the band and I haven’t heard since he left.  Not the most difficult drumming, but certainly among the weirdest.  To not only learn Stanek’s parts from the original canon, but then employ some of those strange flourishes that are so important to the Broken Hope sound into his own tool belt for “Omen of Disease” is an impressive feat on Miczek’s part.

Chuck Wepfer on lead guitar is outstanding.  The guy shreds.  Period.  He is certainly more than a sufficient replacement for Brian Griffin and like Leski on vocals, and Miczek on drums, Wepfer takes some of those signature Griffin harmonies—the ones that sound ill like they have the plague—and he sprinkles them into his own mind-boggling, finger-cramping solos.  It’s another best-case scenario for Broken Hope’s successful return.  

On a macro-level, “Omen of Disease” is most similar to Broken Hope’s 1991 debut, “Swamped in gore”.  The songs are short, gargantuanly heavy, and they dynamically mix blasts with huge slams around a mid tempo base.  The song concepts are straight from the twisted literary brain of Jeremy Wagner and they deliver the expected gory, macabre goods.  Some of the highlights include “The Flesh Mechanic”, “Rendered into Lard”, “Give me the Bottom Half”, as well as a redux of “Incinerated” from “Swamped in Gore” and a couple live tracks.  The CD comes with a DVD that’s basically an ultra-thorough history of the band that features lots of old concert and studio footage as well as old and new interviews.  This is something I may have literally killed for back in 1997.  It’s a fantastic edition for fans who buy the hardcopy.

“Omen of Disease” is mixed by death metal icon James Murphy and by and large the album sounds really modern and dynamic.  If there’s a weakness at all it’s that the guitars come with a little less attack than they do on those early Brian Griffin-produced albums and they sit a little more softly in the mix than I prefer, not volume-wise but rather they don’t seem as “tightly wound” and explosive as they had on albums past.  Murphy hasn’t worked with too many bands that belch forth this particular strain of death metal so I can only assume that the way everything sits in the mix comes from Murphy’s own sensibilities and it will take some getting used to.  Different isn’t necessarily bad.  Certainly all the tones are there and in a nice stereo the album’s superior overall production quality is obvious.

Broken Hope is largely responsible for the style of death metal that birthed bands such as Disgorge, Devourment, Dying Fetus, and Putrid Pile.  If you’re a fan of these bands, check out “Omen of Disease” to hear the brutal guttural death metal archetype in a brand new package and presentation.  And for Broken Hope fans?  Well, you’re my people and I’m confident that if you haven’t gotten ahold of this album yet, you will.