Originally written by Nin Chan
Depending on your perspective, the words “power metal” will either titillate or repulse you. To many, such words conjure contrived images of Manowar fur pelts, grandiose arenas, soaring, testicle-wrenching falsettos, leather and chains, every wanton, stereotypical excess that heavy metal has spawned. To others, the words assume a quasi-religious significance, a beauteous amalgamation of musical virtuosity and epic, evocative storytelling, all siphoned through the majestic grandeur of the power metal vocalist- heavy metal at the apex of its creative powers.
Personally, I stand with one foot in each of these camps- while I vehemently detest the overblown schlock of bands like Dragonland, Rhapsody and especially Dragonforce, my longstanding affinity for stalwarts such as Blind Guardian, Jag Panzer and Metal Church will never be extinguished, nor shall my burgeoning yen for more progressively minded outfits like Eidolon, (older) Fate’s Warning, Pagan’s Mind and Pyramaze. While each of these bands operates and expands upon a similar aesthetic, the tangent they embark upon is decidedly different, and the degree of self-indulgence varies TREMENDOUSLY between them. As such, power metal has always been a genre fraught with risk- there are great bands, and conversely, abhorrent, masturbatory piles of excrement that should never darken a studio doorway again (let alone grace the stereo of an impressionable youth, lest said youngster chooses to propagate the atrocious din).
Having read positive reviews of Brainstorm over the past few years, I approached their new offering with less trepidation than most. Favorable comparisons to countrymen like Blind Guardian and Gamma Ray actually cultivated an eagerness to listen to and critique this record, and for the most part, such anticipation was justified. Track 1 opens with a chunky, hefty tugboat of a riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a latter day Kreator track, further propelled by the startling, sparkling vocals of Andy B. Francke, whose voice somewhat resembles a crossbreeding of Bruce Dickinson (range) and maybe Warrel Dane (aggression). Francke’s voice is absolutely PERFECT for this band, emoting whenever necessary, seething with fury when the song requires such, hitting celestial, flashy peaks with effortless ease.
I have no idea what their previous endeavors sounded like, but the songwriting on this record is pretty damn impressive. Brainstorm certainly have a knack for crafting majestic, progressive tunes, but never allow their songs to wander into self-indulgent, melodramatically grandiose territory (Luca Turilli, anyone?). Flourishes of tech-thrash ala Megadeth surface throughout the record, the band opting for a far more aggressive and visceral approach than many of their more flowery peers. Pulverizing mid-tempo passages abound throughout, supported by a breathtakingly precise and furious rhythm section, recalling Nevermore with the dramatic grandeur knob turned down and the melody switch cranked up. Tempo switches are never overemphasized, technical flourishes are never overstated or overindulged, everything is compact, tightly executed, ridiculously catchy. Unafraid to embrace linear, pop structures and condensed song lengths, Brainstorm renounce the cinematic aspirations (or pretensions?) of many power metal outfits in favor of choruses and solos that firmly engrave themselves into your consciousness. No solo rambles on for too long, no vocal sustained for a second more than absolutely necessary.
Granted, not everything works- the ballad “Heavenly” can get a little nauseating by-the-numbers balladry (though the dynamic followup “Painside” more than redeems its contrived predecessor with its insistent rhythms and overwhelming NWOBHM melodies), the vocal phrasings VERY rarely get a little irritating, but the good THOROUGHLY outweighs the very, very meager bad. It’s truly fascinating how the band shifts from Megadeth shred (and even a Mustaine-sounding vocal performance on the verse of “Despair To Drown) to fluid, speed-picked Helloween/Grave Digger passages to vast, classy sections that sparkle with all the pomp of Blind Guardian.
Everything on this record positively glistens with an accomplished gleam- the production is polished and thick without sounding anodyne or plastic, the guitars are crisp and rich, the bottom-end is given just enough room in the mix to provide a staunch supportive foundation, and the drum sound is deserving of all sorts of superlatives- the bass drum is full and throbbing without sounding artificial, the snare, toms and cymbals cleanly distinguished by a recording that captures the nuanced musicality of the playing on this record.
While he doesn’t crowd already frantic and dense songs with busy fills, Dieter Bernert’s double bass work on this record is truly commendable on several levels- he displays a tremendous sense of restraint, even in the most manic passages of the record, playing within the parameters of the track as opposed to attempting to usurp attention from the churning guitars that encircle each track. Yet, this doesn’t mean that he is boring by any stretch of the imagination- his cymbal work shows flashes of invention here and there, plus the double bass rhythms are always PERFECTLY in sync with the music, adding musicality as well as incredible intensity to the song structures. His playing is steady, dependable, miked flawlessly by the producer to provide one of the highlights to a very solid record.
This is power metal stripped of contrivance and almost exclusively hollowed of cheese, a streamlined affair crafted especially for naysayers of the genre. While I am in no way a power metal enthusiast, I can, with solemn certainty, offer my highest recommendations for this.