Rising Anew: The Unlikely Return of Power Quest

Even though I foolhardily consider myself to be a power metal expert (I’m often surpassed by the collective knowledge of the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group and the Power Metal Subreddit), sometimes I just get things wrong. When it comes to the UK’s Power Quest, my sin was not giving the band the attention they deserved after being introduced to them. I first heard about Power Quest in late 2004 in the wake of the Dragonforce furor that got everyone looking at the UK as the epicenter of power metal’s latest shockwave. The band’s second album Neverworld had just been made available for import from Sentinel Steel’s ever reliable mail order, and I grabbed it based on the recommendation of a trusted group of forum members on UltimateMetal.com (remember forums?). It was in retrospect the band’s only pure power metal album in the classicist Helloween mold. At the time Power Quest were heralded by some as superior to Dragonforce, and by others as the “Valley of the Damned” squad’s little brothers. The comparisons were natural, both bands shared members at one point in Steve Williams and Sam Totman, mainly because the UK power metal community was small and tightly-knit (still strange to think about given the country’s pedigree with Sabbath, Priest, and Maiden). It was so small that its leading lights both had to import vocalists —- the Force’s ZP Theart was from South Africa, and the Quest’s Alessio Garavello was from Italy. Together both bands made waves worldwide, denied any notion of a rivalry, and although a flood of British power metal bands failed to materialize in their wake, they both blazed their own distinctive trails.

 

I loved Neverworld, but when they released its follow-up Magic Never Dies a year later, its change in sound and approach threw me for a loop. I drifted away from following the band as other musical shiny metal objects attracted my attention. It wouldn’t be until many years later when I’d reignite my interest in Power Quest and go back to see what all I’d missed. It was right about early 2011 actually after hearing Dr. Metal play a cut from their upcoming Blood Alliance album with new vocalist Chity Somapala on his Metal Meltdown show. I dug the new song and went back out of curiosity to give Magic Never Dies another shot: It slapped me in the face for my absence with the sheer shock of just how awesome it was. That album and its 2008 follow-up Master of Illusion were bright, crisp, energetic, and dare I suggest even cheerful mash-ups of power metal with 80s guitar rock ala Van Halen circa 1984. Although power metal as a genre had taken a turn towards mixing in hard rock influences for awhile by then (to the delight of some and the agitation of others), what Power Quest had been doing was almost the diametrical opposite to the darker, aggressive, and often more symphonic direction that bands like Avantasia and Kamelot were going in. As much as I loved those bands, it was refreshing to hear someone in power metal doing something entirely unique on their own in another direction.

 

Even in comparison to their fellow countrymen in Dragonforce who were in a race with themselves to get faster and more over the top with frenzied, extended guitar passages; the ‘Quest was more interested in pursuing songs led by vocal harmonies, with Steve Williams trademark throwback keyboard sound paving the way underneath. Alessio was a high register vocalist, capable of helium heights only scaled previously by singers like Michael Kiske and early Tobias Sammet. And Power Quest may have had the most underrated lineup of guitarists in the genre, unheralded talents like Andrea Martongelli (now of Arthemis fame), and of course, the awesome Andy Midgley. Francesco Tresca on drums and longtime bassist Steve Scott were a rockin’, groove ready, occasionally jazzy rhythm section that always kept the band’s sound loose and lithe, never mired in sludge, even during the band’s slower songs. Eventually all those guys left to pursue other music, including Alessio, to be replaced by an entirely new lineup for Blood Alliance, and although the music got even more AOR influenced, the same spirit established by the old guard lived on in that record. Steve was the link of course, being the main songwriter and the force behind the Force, and even though Chity’s vocals couldn’t have been more different from Alessio’s, a song like “Better Days” sounded like the epitome of Power Quest. I remember first playing that song for my black metal loving buddies while helping one of them paint inside his house, they laughingly were aghast at its overt cheerfulness and 80s vibe, but a few months later they were jamming it by themselves.

 

 

When Steve announced in January 2013 that the band was coming to an end due to serious financial troubles, an increasingly demanding day job, and a perceived indifference from the market, I and many others were disappointed to say the least. That disappointment grew even deeper as I kept listening to their albums in the following years, feeling like the band ended long before their time and that a couple more albums were lost as a result. Steve was ever present on Facebook, heard all our longing comments over this time span, how we missed the band, hoped he would write new music again. He had a stint in Eden’s Curse, a rare UK based power metal band whom he did an album with (2013’s Symphony of Sin) although barely got to contribute to its writing process. And that’s what fans like myself missed the most, because the man has a definite vision of the kind of music he wants to make and its combination of influences result in a very unique blend. So fast forward to March of 2016, when Steve announced via social media and a gleeful YouTube video that he was bringing the band back. I know I was giddy, and I was happy to see that most of the Blood Alliance lineup was back in the fold: Rich Smith on drums, Paul Finnie on bass, Gavin Owen on guitars alongside his twin brother Dan. The newcomer was Dendera vocalist Ashley Edison, who was apparently Steve’s first choice for the position, his vocals finding a landing spot between Alessio’s silky tenor and Chity’s gritty, soulful croon. A pre-order funded EP was in the works, and an album to follow.

 

Things hit a bump in March of this year however when the Owen brothers left for unknown reasons, causing the band to have to postpone their Portsmouth show —- but here’s where things got interesting, and kinda fun. So Power Quest have fully embraced social media in their rebirth, and when they hit the studio this summer in between festival dates they began to unleash a flurry of Facebook Lives. These broadcasts had been delivered here and there since the band reformed, but come summer of 2017 they were popping up on my phone’s notifications seemingly every other day —- usually close to midnight GMT as the band’s post-recording session way to blow off steam over a beer and keep fans engaged in the process. The enthusiasm was contagious, and we got introduced to the new guys through these videos as well, guitarists Andrew Kopczyk and Glyn Williams, both of whom revealed themselves to be longtime fans of the band. Because this isn’t a band that would necessarily draw in tons of viewers for these broadcasts, those of us who were there got to ask all sorts of questions, comment on whatever, and generally be a part of a rather cool fan experience —- the sort that galvanizes longtime casual fans into diehard fans. So it’d be safe to say I was already engaged in a preexisting disposition towards this album heading into hearing it for the first time. I think its worth mentioning right now before I actually get into any analysis just so you can weigh that against anything I write about it (though I do think mine is a reasonable, non-hyperbolic perspective).

 

So its been six years since the last Power Quest album, and that was with a one-off singer as well, which really keeps expectations for Sixth Dimension a bit up in the air. I honestly didn’t know what we’d get, but that we got a fairly steady-handed, finding their footing, straight down the middle take on the Power Quest sound isn’t surprising in the least. Nor is it a bad thing, this is the kind of record they probably were right to deliver, something that finds itself firmly between all of their previous albums’ approaches. There’s a classicist moment like the Neverworld invoking “Lords of Tomorrow”, which also boasts an “Edge of Time” mid-tempo hard rock riff sandwiched in between as a kind of breakdown. The EP title track “Face the Raven” is newly recorded here, and sounds a little fiercer in its attack, the guitars slightly heavier —- its grown on me as a single, Steve’s keyboard melody working as a well-timed motif to complement the chorus. The AOR vibe is strong with “Coming Home”, and maybe its due to the recency to the Blood Alliance era, but it can’t be more than coincidental that this winds up being the best song on the album. Ashley’s vocals here are confident, sure, and full of the bright energy that a chorus this fully arcing demands. Even the guitar solo sequence here is excellent, full of complex layering and melodies that run counterpoint to the primary song melody as a sort of centerpiece. This song has Master of Illusion type DNA, and I was hoping for a couple more like it but I’ll definitely take the one —- it is however the difference between a solid album and something better.

 

 

There’s some stuff here that doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot that we’re used to getting from Steve’s songwriting, two songs being “Starlight City” and “Kings and Glory”. They’re not bad tunes, but “Starlight City” doesn’t have a chorus that lives up to its promising intro verse and cascading bridge, and not even some surprising gang vocal “whoooaaahs” can lift up a refrain that seems a bit flat. Their positions in the tracklisting at two and three handicap the album a bit coming out of the gate, leaving the “Face the Raven” and “No More Heroes” to attempt to recapture the energy generated by the opener “Lords of Tomorrow”. They’re largely successful in that attempt, because “No More Heroes” has the kind of vocal melody ear candy that defined the band’s mid-period artistic success, a song you’ll come back to just to hear how Ashley bends his voice on the line “…I pray with all my heart / we find a brighter day yeah…”. Its followed up by “Revolution Fighters”, which has a level of grit in its verses that lend it enough power to carry the song over a chorus that doesn’t quite arc into a hook the way it needs to. On “Pray For the Day”, there’s enough of that awkward Power Quest charm to worm its way through to make me kinda love the track despite its flaws, I just wish that chorus hit with a little more heft.

 

Where things really do come together once again is on the title track for the album, serving as the closer and falling in line as one of the band’s best epic-length cuts in their discography. Its a moody, dark, tension filled slice of prog-metal that is patient in its buildup, with sublime melodic twists in the lead vocals during the verses. The chorus is a declarative eruption of yearning from Ashley, delivering his best vocal of the entire album over lyrics that would feel at home on a Tony Kakko penned tune. There’s a surprise Anette Olzon guest vocal drop in during the instrumental passage midway through, coming in so sweet and sudden that it seems to surprise Power Quest themselves, so sharp and swift is the change in tempo and melody. She sounds great, and its a perfect pairing, sounding all the more distinctive which is surprising given her time out of the spotlight —- there’s a unique accent to her vocal that Nightwish seemed to keep largely in check but its charming all its own. Steve wrote the song with an outside co-writer (Richard West from Threshold) which is unusual for him but it might account for its freshness, because there’s really nothing in the back catalog quite like it. Kudos to the band for also breaking a streak of really rough album closer epics from a string of releases that I’ve reviewed over the past three years here, someone finally did it right again.

 

What can I say in conclusion, except that I’m so grateful to have this band back, they mean more to me now than when they went away. Power Quest get tagged as flower metal by some, a pejorative for hyper positive power metal heavy on the major key, though I suspect the band themselves would wear it as a badge of honor. This is metal folks, it doesn’t sound like Darkthrone, it certainly doesn’t sound like Kreator or Morbid Angel, but its metal —- accept it. I have taken to comparing metal to ice cream, you might not like every flavor equally, but hey, its still ice cream right? There’s a flavor for everyone and Power Quest are the most fruit filled, whip cream plopped with a cherry on top flavor there is. Even amidst a genre of some often shiny, happy music, Power Quest are at another level, with only Freedom Call as their closest contemporary. Their willingness to stand apart even in power metal, against all the tides that have pushed against them is worthy of absolute respect even from those with no love for the style. Its funny that a band with more hooks than they know what to do with is inherently more noncommercial than extreme metal like Behemoth or Cradle of Filth as a direct consequence. That must have seemed unfair at moments for Steve Williams, who might have felt himself born a decade or so too late to have unleashed his sound in the mid to late 80s. His is a British mentality though, the “carry on” spirit built on stubbornness and pride and dignity that we recognize in bands like Iron Maiden. Ashley Edison said in a recent interview that at some point long after he had ended the band in 2013 and had since cleared his debts, Steve had wondered aloud to himself why he wasn’t doing the band anymore. He realized he needed it. And really, we needed him.

 

 

Atlantean Kodex: Power Metal’s Unlikely Heroes?

If you haven’t heard of Germany’s Atlantean Kodex before, that’s understandable because they are only recently receiving the kind of critical acclaim that is turning quite a few heads thanks to their amazing new record The White Goddess. I myself only listened to them after 2013 had passed, thanks to seeing their high placement on Adrien Begrand’s Best of 2013 list. Atlantean Kodex play power metal, or as some prefer to call it to avoid negative stigmas, traditional or epic metal. The caveat is that all this new found attention is coming from far more than just relatively underground power metal sites/blogs —-  as the band have been turning the heads of writers at a few big platform publications such as Pitchfork, Stereogum, Popmatters, and Vice. Yes you’re reading that right, a release by a power metal band from the birthplace of the subgenre itself is receiving the kind of attention that is normally reserved for critically acceptable black and death metal bands. Their success in this regard is the product of two parts smart marketing and pairing with highly regarded indie record labels (Cruz Del Sur/20 Buck Spin), and one part a blending of such disparate influences as Manowar and Bathory —- a combination that practically begs to be investigated.

 

Its important to note that Atlantean Kodex are a relatively young band in a strange way; they formed in 2005 but have been quite content to take their time in creating new music, as The White Goddess is only their sophomore full length album. However it might be one of the most important power metal recordings of all time, not only due to its undisputed excellence, but for what it could mean for the future of a subgenre long maligned in the United States. In this regard, Atlantean Kodex are venturing into unknown territory, being the first power metal band to achieve critical success from non-metal media platforms in the post-social media era. Surely this kind of success would not come from the genre’s long standing forefathers, its torchbearers such as Blind Guardian, Rhapsody, Kamelot, Iced Earth, Avantasia, etc, etc —- the fix was in against those bands perhaps simply because their origins predate the current era. Its always easier for the media to disregard something long established with lazy labels and critical adjectives (ie cheesy, pretentious, dinosaur, etc) than it is to actually do the work and understand why these artists are as popular and loved as they are.

 

 

What makes The White Goddess great isn’t exactly groundbreaking on a conceptual level —- its simply quality songwriting, excellent musicianship, and a vocalist that sells it all with soaring conviction. The same qualities could be attributed to many other fine releases by other bands within the genre. Where Atlantean Kodex strive to differentiate themselves is by adding shades of melancholic doom to their take on power metal, which makes everything sound heavier, with a tendency to lean on slower, steady tempos, often with ample use of space and silence. Evidence of the latter can be found on the slow and brooding eleven minute long “Heresiarch”, where isolated bass lines sometimes are the sole instrument rumbling along during the verses. The clear album standout here is “Sol Invictus” (another ten minute plus track), the album’s clarion call that boasts a punishing heaviness not only from sledgehammer riffs, but from the brutal attack of the rhythm section —- drummer Mario Weiss is one of the most talented and unheralded drummers in metal today, his percussion is at once relentless, assaulting, and artful. The chorus here puts the spotlight on vocalist Markus Becker who commands your attention with a performance that is Imaginations-era Hansi Kursch esque. I’ll spare you a track by track dissection here, the entire album is jawdroppingly amazing, but my personal favorite has to be “Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown”, a semi-ballad that wrenches out emotion from every note. At times throughout the song, metal fury is pierced by moments of haunting, doomy, ethereal beauty. I mentioned Bathory as an influence earlier, and its extremely difficult to pinpoint one particular moment where Quorthon’s work really comes through, because its simply everywhere, ingrained in the fabric of Atlantean Kodex’s sound and approach to songwriting. You hear it alongside the Manowar-ish influences and it sounds completely natural.

 

Lyrically, this is top tier level stuff that transcends power metal boundaries despite using many mythological references. The underlying theme of the album is the rise and fall of modern Europe, but these lyrics are ancient world imagery rich and full of obscure mythological metaphors, as guitarist Manuel Trummer explained to VICE, “The figure of the White Goddess is an allegory for this life/death relationship. She‘s an pan-European deity who shows up in all religions from ancient Greece to the Nordic pantheon, but she‘s always associated with aspects of life, death and rebirth.” Many of you that read this blog often already know that I’m big on lyricists within metal, that is, quality lyricists which are few and far between. This is band that has put as much work into their lyrics as they have their music, a rare tendency in power metal even, which is a shame because I thought Trummer had a point when he talked about the lack of need for focusing on lyrics in other, more extreme genres of metal: “with all these Cookie Monster vocals in brutal death metal, metalcore, deathcore, etc., you can‘t understand the lyrics anyway. A lot of this new kind of metal is about physical power, about experiencing your own body, about extreme feelings and situations. There‘s simply no need for elaborate lyrics.” And that’s a good jumping off point to say that I think The White Goddess could be a turning point for the future of power/trad/epic (whatever you want to call it) metal —- it certainly is going to be a benchmark going forward at the very least.
 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KA5X91UUv1o&w=560&h=315]

 

 

The possibility exists now, however small it is, that this album’s critical success could pave the way for more power metal bands to get first time, or simply longer “looks” from the mainstream media, particularly here in the United States. More pressingly, it could inspire many power metal bands that are either stuck in a formula, or afraid to get “arty” to go ahead and take chances with their music. I must admit to wondering idly whether or not The White Goddess would have received the kind of attention it did from those big platform sites had it been released on Century Media or Nuclear Blast, and featured cover art that looked like it belonged more on a Gamma Ray record (as opposed to the one they chose, which could be a Candlemass cover). It was a savvy marketing move, and no one can fault the band for that.

 

Thanks to Atlantean Kodex’s late 2013 success, I have an interesting idea brewing about 2014 being a resurgent year for power metal, as we are likely going to see most major bands within the genre release new albums throughout the year (Iced Earth for example already have —- review forthcoming), and this could be the year that some of these guys finally get the attention from larger circles that they are so often denied. I look at Atlantean Kodex’s dent in the tastemaker’s media platform as just one part of this potential future, Pharaoh certainly turned major heads (such as Lars Gotrich of NPR) with 2012’s Bury the Light record —- but more than just isolated examples however, is an undercurrent of what I feel might be an overload of the extreme metal spectrum. Death and black bands tend to take up the majority of critical attention, and I’ve been noticing that a few writers out there are getting seemingly bored with it all, and that the prospect of a metal band with actual singing is becoming a more and more appealing idea. Its going to be interesting to look back at the end of this year and see if my prediction is right.

A Metal Pigeon Nod to Power Quest

 

 

Its been an exceptionally quiet start to the new year for metal related news and happenings, but one announcement a couple weeks ago really caught my attention. After twelve years and five studio albums, Power Quest from the UK, one of the premiere power metal bands of the past decade was calling it quits. In an extremely blunt, and forthright statement, band founder and keyboardist Steve Williams laid out the circumstances surrounding the band’s demise, and the blame seemed to fall for the most part on the ugly truths of finances. And here’s the thing: Regardless of whether I like any band’s music or not, whether I’ve enjoyed their live shows or thought they sucked and wished they’d get off the stage, I’d be extremely disheartened to hear of any band having to throw in the towel for reasons as soul crushingly bare as the ones that were described in Williams’ statement.

 

 

 

 

I myself do enjoy Power Quest’s albums and while I can’t say that they’ve been my favorite power metal band by any means, I have always thought that Williams (who as the primary songwriting force is essentially Power Quest) was an exceptionally skillful songwriter in the conventional sense of penning undeniably catchy melody lines and hooky choruses, an ability which is sadly undervalued within metal. Unlike their fellow UK siblings in Dragonforce (both sprang from the old mp3.com era band Dragonheart of the early 2000s), Power Quest were far less concerned with speed and furious soloing as they were with keeping all the arrangements and window dressings as uncluttered as possible to allow their pure melodies to soar through. The results were the cornerstones of what European  power metal should be: great melodies, memorable hooks and choruses, and really really fun songs.

 

But power metal like all other kinds of metal has the potential for subtext and depth, and Power Quest were no exception in this regard. And there was the enjoyability of the music on a surface level, and then the quiet reasons why you were able to accept this poppy, cheery, optimistic music as a type of metal when so many fellow metal fans would scoff at it. A reviewer named thedudeofdudeness on the Metal Archives perhaps said it best, in describing the band’s music as “power metal’s proclivity toward escapism, setting fantasy and science fiction themes against the backdrop of the real world and treating romanticism and imagination as a last refuge against the conflicts and alienation of modernity”.

 

I understand all bands have to end sometime, but you’d rather the end come through a natural course of progression such as key band members leaving, artistic changes of heart, or feeling like they’ve said all they can say. The gut feeling with Power Quest is that Williams was on to something fresh with 2011’s Blood Alliance and its increased blend of 80’s AOR with traditional power metal, and that they’re leaving with their career’s work unfinished. It really does feel as if these guys had a few more albums left on the table, and that they’re having to walk away now is a shame.

 

So here’s a nod, a cheer, a toast, or a metal horns salute to Power Quest, and a listen to five reasons why they mattered:

 

 

1. “Edge of Time” (from the Neverworld album): The ultimate Power Quest song. A perfect mix of 80s Euro-hard rock swagger and traditional power metal elements fused into one punctuatingly catchy paean to the spirit of defiance. Rocking guitar riffs support dominating keyboard melodies that guide one of the best vocal performances in recent power metal history. You already have the music video idea in your head.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weO0Qdl2vzQ?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

 

2. “Better Days” (from the Blood Alliance album):  The website AllMusic wrote of this song, “”Better Days” sounds like it was written to soundtrack a training montage in an ’80s movie about a high-school wrestler recruited to battle Soviet soldiers, or something”. Its hard to argue against that, because when I think on it, that would be really awesome (someone outta be working on a YouTube clip of that btw), but hahas aside, “Better Days” may be one of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard. And I’m not embarrassed to say that when I listen to it, I feel a little better, no matter how down of a day I’m having. And sometimes that’s what certain songs are for.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQ11RP8j9tU?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

 

3. “When I’m Gone” (from the Neverworld album): This stately, semi-awkwardly constructed ballad is endearing on a number of levels. First for the simple yet emotive keyboard intro, secondly for the sublime harmony vocals in the chorus (always a great trait for a power metal band to have), and finally for the bittersweet poetic chorus lyric “And when I’m gone,  the world carries on / And you must carry on too / When I’m not around, time won’t stand still / Your memories will always be true” — a simple lyric to be sure but memorable at that and set to a bed of music that evokes a sense of nostalgia, fear, and optimism all at once.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKHpeyiMLt8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

 

4. “Hold On To Love” (from the Magic Never Dies album): Despite the at times ‘on the nose’ lyrics that skirt the boundaries of saccharine melodrama, this was a highly memorable song from an album full of memorable songs. A hook that never goes away coupled with the lean, sharp guitars that characterized many of Power Quest’s more hard rock inflected tunes has made this a personal favorite. There’s also a fantastic guitar solo that sounds eerily similar to the old Melrose Place theme song (not that I would ever watch that)!

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSsN0pYiyCE?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

 

5. Lost Without You” (from the Neverworld album): If you haven’t noticed, Neverworld was a spectacular album — a power metal gem. This is the longest song the band ever did, and it showcases their prog-influenced side, taking a page from Kansas, Styx, and the like. Ten minute songs by power metal bands are normally a dicey proposition with few bands having the skills to craft one worth its length, but Williams succeeded in shaping a multifaceted epic with varying tempos, styles, even vocalists — but at the core is a rockin’ verse and chorus section with aggressive hooks and a refrain that soars.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOWv2XLjop4?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

 

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