I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave.
~ Ernest Shackleton
Discovery can be a fickle bitch. As Sir Shackleton would attest, no matter one’s steadfast sense of purpose, Fate is forever truly at the helm. In meager parallel, this album has been a curious experience for me. I first heard it when the band began streaming it on their website and I was hooked immediately. The Stars of Never Seen’s passionate brand of power-laced traditional heavy metal seemed poised to finally fill the cavernous void left trailing the wake of Pharaoh’s excellent Be Gone. Oddly enough, though, it didn’t stick. Upon the first few spins of the promo copy, I was left wondering how to sum up a record that I found to be fun and familiar but with slightly off center vocal harmonies, with which some will clearly take issue, and lacking a veritable punch. Dismayed, I set about giving it the obligatory extra listens to solidify my take. Then, in the midst of my fifth proper spin, it clicked. Like a motherfuckin timebomb.
Anybody who heard Crescent Shield’s debut, The Last of My Kind, knows that this Golden State traditional metal troupe lives and breaths it. If you haven’t heard, please refer to Michael Wuensch’s top notch review of that album for an excellent discussion of their musical prowess and then forgive yourself for missing one of the better heavy metal albums of the past few years.
In the throwback era of heavy metal, it is getting more difficult to for classic minded bands to forge a suitable familiarity with panache enough to steer clear of clichéd clichés. But, while many such bands wear their influences on their sleeves, Crescent Shield wears them like bloodied badges of honor. On The Stars of Never Seen, the debt to Iron Maiden is diminished a bit, as the focal aperture is opened a little wider to more fully encompass the power/prog stylings of pioneers like Fates Warning and especially Helstar. This is very much about approach, though, rather than identity, as this album boasts an undeniably distinct sound.
Crescent Shield’s sophomore effort seems to fly by, due in no small measure to each song’s meticulous placement within a varied and dynamic but finely balanced arrangement, allowing a seamless flow from somber to lively and acute to epic. Crafted around the general theme of discovery and courage in the face of the unknown, the album meanders through a menagerie of mysteries from the mundane (interpersonal confrontation in “My Anger”) to the marvelous (interstellar exploration in “The Grand Horizon”), without ever losing its way. Of course, none of this would matter much if the songs didn’t stand strong on their own. Within the grand design, every song has something special to offer, from the pensive mandolin interludes of “Temple of The Empty” to the haunting, soulful solos of “Tides of Fire.” And, as good as the first six tracks are, The Stars of Never Seen bursts to supernova splendor with its final triumphant triumvirate. “The Bellman” is a boisterous bit of maritime metal that serves in its augury to the audacious as an introduction to “The Endurance,” an epic metal narrative based on Shackleton’s ill fated third attempt at conquering the South Pole. Akin in spirit and motif to Maiden’s “Rime…,” “The Endurance” also draws inspiration from early Dio and Loudness (note the opening riff sequence), in expertly weaving this tale of loss and ascendancy of human will in which the music conveys every bit as much as the lyrics. Bolstered by an accommodating production and an abundance of exciting riffs and compelling keystone rhythms, this masterwork is given life by Michael Grant’s vocal performance, itself propelled by superior songwriting. Nowhere is this more evident than in the excellent vocal counterpoint and complex cadence sown throughout the album, and particularly on “Lifespan,” the album’s peerless inspirational epilogue.
In looking back at my initial difficulty with this album, I can’t help but wonder whether my experience didn’t develop just the way Crescent Shield would have it. After all, within ourselves or without, we often set about an adventure with a hasty fervor, forgetting that discovery is never without its travails. But, through perseverance, we as often find that while the dream that catalyzed our voyage has eluded us, greater riches still lie in the essence of the journey. An exhilarating and intimate heavy metal saga, The Stars of Never Seen distinguishes Crescent Shield as the best in their business this year.