In continuing the theme of 2014 being the year of power metal, the past couple months have given us a handful of new releases by established artists from the genre to delve into. Among these are two bands back with their first new albums in over half a decade. Sweden’s Persuader were last heard from on 2006’s admittedly lackluster When Eden Burns, the first slight misstep within their largely fantastic discography. The German quintet of Silent Force haven’t released a record since 2007, and are also sporting three new band members while moving forward without longtime vocalist D.C. Cooper. If you haven’t been keeping up, he’s been back with Royal Hunt since 2011, and they’ve just released only their fourth album with him on vocals, despite his first joining the band way back in 1995(!). And then there’s Germany’s Primal Fear, who might just be one of the most hardworking bands in genre, ushering in one album/tour cycle after another with no stop in regularity. They return with their tenth album in sixteen years, a breathless pace for any band to keep (and that’s not counting compilations or live albums). Lets get into it:
Persuader – The Fiction Maze:
I’m glad I took my time with this album, because perhaps my initial exuberance at the mere fact that I was finally listening to a new Persuader record would have colored my initial impressions had I reviewed it right away. Speaking of taking one’s time, eight years is an eternally long time between albums in the metal world, and kind of a shame in Persuader’s case because despite my limited enjoyment of When Eden Burns, I had no doubt that they’d right the ship and get back to delivering modern day classics in just a year or two. Clearly that didn’t happen… so why such a long wait for this new album?
It’s ironically Blind Guardian’s fault (Persuader vocalist Jens Carlsson is a dead ringer for Hansi Kursch), as former Guardian sticksman Thomen Stauch persuaded (hah!) Carlsson and guitarist Emil Norberg to join him in the bizarre power metal Frankenstein that was Savage Circus. Stauch left Blind Guardian due to being unhappy with the band’s current symphonic-heavy direction, and he yearned for a return to their early nineties era musical style. Alongside Iron Savior’s Piet Sielck, the Persuader guys stuck around long after Stauch himself went on a hiatus for personal reasons, and a great deal of time passed in which they managed to release a few records to mild acclaim. I think the best way to consider all this is to state that the very obvious sentiment that where many were clamoring and hoping for new Persuader all these years, few have done the same for Savage Circus. Hindsight then.
So does the band rebound with The Fiction Maze? In large part yes, this is a far superior album to When Eden Burns, yet it fails to match the visceral intensity of their past classics The Hunter and Evolution Purgatory. The album opens with its best track, the absolutely storming “One Lifetime”, where a thunderous introduction with aggressive melo-death riffing and tension building verses usher in the band’s most devastating chorus to date. This is classic Persuader, playing to their strengths and showcasing their natural talents as hook first songwriters. Not quite as stunning, yet still great are the lead off single “Son of Sodom”, “Deep in the Dark”, and “Sent to the Grave”; the latter of which boasts 2014’s most compulsively earwormy chorus (Carlsson’s vocal phrasing here is inspired).
But there’s some weaker stuff here as well, including a couple of clunkers in “War” (which is a shame as it follows “One Lifetime”), “Worlds Collide”, and most notably the insipidly titled “InSect”. Their interspersed placement among the tracklisting is distracting and disrupts the flow of the album into a continuously up and down experience. I see myself loading up the best tracks on the iPod and avoiding further listens to the album as a whole —- maybe next time we’ll get a start to finish classic. Hopefully it won’t take eight years.
Silent Force – Rising From Ashes:
I know that I’ve used a lot of screen space lately on discussing subgenres, styles, and just what characterizes metal. You’ll forgive me however if I delve right into a puzzling question that arises upon my umpteenth listen of Silent Force’s Rising From Ashes: Why is it that nearly every power metal/trad metal band that winds up on AFM records eventually ends up transitioning to a more hard rock style? If you know your power metal history, you’ll realize that this actually started with Edguy leaving AFM back in 2001 after Mandrake was released, their next album was 2004’s very much hard rock injected Hellfire Club —- their first for their new label Nuclear Blast. Maybe that’s where it started, but its become something of an unspoken phenomenon, but I’m not wrong in my observations. I can only idly speculate at what the source behind this influence is —- the label bosses perhaps?
This doesn’t mean that the results are automatically doomed to failure. More often than not, the natural extension for a power metal band looking to loosen up their traditionally tightly wound sound is to add more wild, unrestrained hard rock influences into the mix. The concerning thing is that its become a major trend over the past half a decade, and there are so few power metal bands going the opposite direction when seeking new inspiration (for example, mixing in more technicality, or getting heavier by adding in extreme metal elements… Falconer is a good example of the latter). Anyway, Rising From Ashes is worlds apart from their last album with D.C. Cooper, 2007’s Walk the Earth, as new vocalist Michael Bormann boasts a bluesy, Coverdale-ish rasp that is a striking contrast to Cooper’s smooth tenor. As far as hard rock vocalists go, he’s top tier and sounds practically ageless (he’s bounced around various projects since 1993). Founding guitarist Alexander Beyrodt apparently decided that it was enough of a contrast that he had to scale back the band’s more traditional power metal leanings in favor of lean, muscled up hard rock riffs, a simplified approach to songwriting and a shift from fantasy inspired lyrical themes to a more hard rock friendly range of topics about relationships and heartbreak.
It actually works surprisingly well on spectacular tracks like “Circle of Trust”, “Anytime Anywhere”, and the very Whitesnake-ian “Turn Me Loose”. The former is the best track on the record, featuring an explosive chorus complete with gang shouted vocals (although the workable lyrics tend to veer close to self-help/counseling territory). All three boast refrains that will get stuck in your head —- but unlike past Silent Force records, the entire song seems built around them in a simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus format, and seemingly long gone are the prog-metal elements of records past. That means a tremendous lack of lengthy, flashy Beyrodt solos, no delicate piano or acoustic guitar intros, no sudden shifts in tempo or structure, and no more of the adventurous elements that made albums like Walk the Earth or Worlds Apart so compelling.
It honestly just sounds like a totally different band at times (or much like Beyrodt’s side project in Voodoo Circle, which makes the whole thing even more puzzling). The rest of the tracks on this album reinforce that loss, and while they’re all generally decent enough, they pass over you without much of an impact. The magic of those earlier releases seems to be gone, and I’m going to go ahead and suggest their choice of vocalist contributed to that. Bormann is an undeniable talent, and he could sound great singing your shopping list, but they really needed to get someone who could’ve continued in the same milieu as Cooper. Sometimes heading in the opposite direction with a replacement vocalist works out, but not if that direction pulls the band along with it as well.
Royal Hunt – A Life to Die For:
Good news for those hoping that the Hunt would maintain the momentum built back up with 2011’s Show Me How to Live, their long hoped for reunion album with D.C. Cooper. Their newest is as good, if not better and as a nice little bonus provides us with the best production to ever grace an album in their overwhelming discography. If you’ve gotten used to hearing Cooper’s far more metallic attack in Silent Force over the years, his approach in Royal Hunt might throw you. He showcases a far more theatrical, almost Freddy Mercury-ian flamboyance in his vocals on all his work in this band (and to my ears at least, it sounds like he picked up right where he left off on the 1998 masterpiece Paradox). Keyboard and composer André Andersen doesn’t shake up the formula all that much, so you know what you’re getting on an essential level: progressive, complex songwriting with an emphasis on strong hooks, prominent keyboard melody lines, and of course stellar upfront vocals.
This time Andersen added some actual string players to fatten up the orchestral elements normally handled by his keys alone. The results are noticeable, especially on standout tracks like “One Minute Left to Live” where they play off Andersen’s keys in dramatic fashion. That track is also a strong example of how its entirely possible to make melodic prog-metal both technically complex and accessibly catchy, possibly something born of a European tradition since its an aspect lost on American bands like Dream Theater. The same goes for “Sign of Yesterday”, a melodramatic quasi-power ballad where stately strings usher Cooper’s vocals in waltz like rhythms before revealing an almost circular, sweeping chorus. On “Running Out of Tears”, Cooper is joined by harmonized counterpoint female vocals, a delicate touch that adds depth to an already strong refrain. As I’m listening to the album again while writing this review, I can’t help but just appreciate how great it is having Cooper back with Andersen. The latter’s songwriting style always seemed to lend itself to an ultra smooth voice and while the John West / Mark Boals eras had their good moments, they simply don’t hold a candle to Cooper.
Primal Fear – Delivering the Black: Its getting harder and harder to review new Primal Fear albums. I’ve always enjoyed their Judas Priest-influenced (worship?) take on power metal, they make consistently solid albums (never truly great), and there’s not much to complain about. And that’s kind of the problem… (here it comes)… they have a tendency to largely play it safe to a fault sometimes. Don’t expect Delivering the Black to signal a drastic change of that tendency, and I suppose its fair to state that the band is entirely comfortable with that. I did however think 2012’s Unbreakable was the most inspired record they had delivered in the past ten years —- the reasons being hard to define except to surmise that they were firing on all cylinders songwriting wise. It was the first time I could remember being able to play through a Primal Fear album without skipping around.
As a follow-up Delivering is a touch underwhelming in comparison, but it does have its fair share of carry over excellence from its predecessor. As on Unbreakable with the undeniably awesome “Where Angels Die”, the longer songs here seem to fare better, namely, “One Night in December”, and the lead single “When Death Comes Knocking”. Kudos to the band for adding to the latter some unexpected musical flair in the form of middle eastern instrumentation midway through, it actually works for some bizarre reason. The former track is the traditional epic of the album, and they’ve been on a such a roll with them lately I almost encourage the band to seek out crafting a smaller tracklisted album full of these Sad Wings of Destiny influenced lengthier cuts. Its songwriting is complex and multifaceted, while sonically there are just enough subtle orchestral swells to make your hair stand on end at times. Guitarist Magnus Karlsson seems to have really found his place within the songwriting ranks of the band in the past couple albums, he’s likely one of the major reasons for their turnaround lately. A tip of the hat as well to Alex Beyrodt (yes the very same Beyrodt of Silent Force), who has been helping the band on second guitarist duties (I guess he’s officially in the band now?).
There’s of course a ballad on offer here too, “Born with a Broken Heart”, and if you enjoy power metal ballads then you should appreciate Primal Fear’s career long track record of tackling these. There’s just something about Ralf Scheepers’ leathery vocals softening for gorgeous, delicate orchestral melodies that supersedes any reservations about the admittedly trite lyrics (you don’t listen to Primal Fear for in depth lyricism). The rest of the album is largely good despite a few fillers here and there, but that’s to be expected, though I wasn’t wild about the closer “Inseminoid” —- whatever that title is supposed to mean. It could’ve been left as a b-side for Japan which would have made the ballad the closer. Oh well, nitpicking is futile. I suppose the fact that I wouldn’t mind hearing a good handful of these songs live when I see the band in May is a good sign for my overall appraisal.