Pawns in Chess is a Cleveland, Ohio born group that came to be in December of 2012. At the time, it consisted of former Descend members Mike Guinther (bass), Gary Henrich (guitar), and Shawn Hapney (drums). Rounding out the line-up was guitarist Jeremy McLellon, as well as a singer later on. Gary, however, departed from the band in April of 2013, and their vocalist was later dropped to allow the band's music to speak for itself instead of relying on lyrics to express points that, according to the band biography, "none of the members [felt] strongly about." Armed as a three-piece, the unit unleashed their first demo, The Blood of Martyrs, in April of 2014 as an instrumental band. But does this recording stand as a solid mixture of sludgy progressive metal worth tackling, or does the band still need more time to hone their sound?

While The Blood of Martyrs has plenty of traditional progressive tendencies, the typical concept of having a crisp, overly digital production in this day and age is not one of them. The demo has a fair amount of rawness to it that presents a much dirtier sound that is highly beneficial to the sludge and thrash metal elements that come into play, as if listening to an album of the latter style from the early to mid-eighties. The guitars have a good buzz to them that isn't too overpowering, the bass is present enough at times with a nice mid-range hum or twang, and the drums stand as the most pristine all around, though just as pushed back in the mix as everything else. The guitar solos, however, can be a bit shrill, but it only adds to the charm of the authentic analog output on par with High on Fire that is captured here, adding far more heft than something one might find on a modern Dream Theatre or Animals as Leaders outing.

"Juggernaut" displays all of that quite well with riffs fans of Faith or Fear would be familiar with, as well as hooks even Deceased could appreciate. The rougher audio quality simply just makes this one pretty creepy most of the time, but by a minute and a half in, that tone is vacated for a much more glorious one within a highly sludge filled world along the lines of Devolution-era High on Fire before finally trudging along with a slam and guitar solo as you approach the three minute mark. "The Procession", however, doesn't share an eerie melodic trait with the first of the two aforementioned similarities, but can remind fans of the former's track "C.D.S." or even "Dead Wrong" by Annihilator until things tone down about half way in, becoming a little more personal and forgiving in an emotional manner. Even the guitar solo plays this up by adding a hint of eighties Hard Rock grit that seems to spiral out of control the closer to the climactic refrain of the earlier thrash-fused grooves you get.

"Blood of Martyrs" is a slow paced offering that makes good use of the distortions on the guitar, and there's plenty of fills coming from the drum kit. But it's the bass guitar's presence that adds a little extra attitude into the mix before the pace picks up about a minute and a half in, and again around three minutes where the band bares their fangs with material that briefly reminds me of "Metal by Numbers" by Brian Posehn. While odd, it's far from a bad thing. "Dark Matter", an over eight minute offering, has a decent amount of attitude felt throughout the fairly upbeat grooves, as well as some passages with a hazy stoner metal presence, such as three and a half minutes in. The drumming can't be overlooked here either. While the guitar work by six minutes in is quite good, the drums really help to maintain the pace during the more technical hooks, as well as give the guitar solo more of an eighties action movie vibe that easily gets the blood pumping before a doom metal crawl towards the finish a minute later.

While all the tracks on The Blood of Martyrs are enjoyable in their own right, it's by "In the Beginning" that things start to go downhill for a bit. Both it and the introduction lumped into "Dark Matter" aren't anything too spectacular. Other than that, however, this stands as a pretty solid demo that explores a few different branches of metal, all of which benefiting greatly from the analog quality. And, well, truthfully, having a higher, sleeker production or mastering might very well become more of a detriment to the band's instrumental performances in the end, so it's great they opted to go this route for whatever reason prompted it. There is still room to grow, but at this point it's clear the trio is definitely headed in the right direction. If you happen to get a chance to check out Pawns in Chess, or even if you get the opportunity to pick up a copy of The Blood of Martyrs, definitely take the time to do it, as these recordings show a good deal of promise for their future recordings.

Review originally posted at Apoch's Metal Review.