A new Cage album is no longer afforded the grace of being considered a potentially overlooked gem. The San Diego power troupe assured their fifth studio album, Science of Annihilation, a higher level of scrutiny by putting out consecutive outstanding heavy metal records in Darker Than Black and Hell Destroyer. Likely due in no small measure to the consequently inevitable high expectations, I had a hell of a time coming to a definitive conclusion as to this one’s merits. In listening to Science… many, many times, I came away feeling as if it seriously kicked loads of ass about as often as I felt it is seriously flawed. After much deliberation, I decided my ambivalence was the result of nothing more complicated than the fact that this album is just about equal parts head bangin and head scratchin.
It’s clear from the first track proper, “Planet Crusher,” that this new album is going to be a lot faster than previous efforts. Cage’s ever-present affinity for all things Judas Priest has been focused very keenly on Painkiller, particularly “Metal Meltdown” and “Leather Rebel.” And, aside from a couple brief or inconsequential diversions, they don’t ever let up. It’s top-gear, cranked-to-11, in-the-stratosphere virtually straight through. It’s exhilarating from lift off, but a little like a United flight cruising 550 mph at 35,000 feet, it doesn’t take long to acclimate to a state of near ennui.
It’s no revelation that Sean Peck has got some serious pipes, and the man is as balls out fierce in his delivery here as he has ever been. His stepped vocals, in which lines are repeated at progressively higher pitches, are outstanding on the album opener and turn out to be a favorite device throughout the record. Consistent with the speed/power ethos of the album, he spends an awful lot of time at the high end of his range, in terms of both pitch and force. Ultimately, whereas the energy of his approach is undeniable, it’s pretty obvious he has found and dismissed his limits, frequently sounding strained and even tired (see the title track for a crystal clear example).
You’ll notice the presence of new drummer, Neil Leggio (ex-Psychotic Waltz), straight away, as he lays claim to sonic real estate largely eschewed by his predecessors, and this little development seems to be behind an awful lot of what’s different about the band this time around. The ferocity he brings to Cage’s sound effectively injects these tunes with a feral verve they’d previously managed on just a few tracks, such as “Wings of Destruction” and “Fire and Metal.” As impeccably precise as his performance is, it falls prey to some dubious production decisions, as the drums have been processed to a dull edge and at times are mixed far enough up front to become distracting, especially when he’s whipping the snot out of the snare.
In fact, the production is frustrating in many regards. The guitars have been honed to the razor-sharp edge you know from Painkiller but at the expense of the heft and grit that signified the band’s classic heavy metal sound. And, way too often, the melodic leads of Dave Garcia and Anthony Wayne McGinnis, so masterfully tight and dynamic, are almost lost in the mix. For example, “Die Glocke” features some truly killer soloing, but the melodic leads in the verses are virtually buried. Even Peck sometimes seems to be subjugated, other times overly dominant.
Finally, the songs themselves run the gamut, even within a song, from “Fuck yeah!” to “What the fuck?!” For example, “Scarlet Witch” and “Stranger in Black” feature well integrated and dynamic melodic pre-choruses, choruses and bridges, while the verses of these songs are simply hackneyed and flat. “Black River Falls,” on the other hand, offers killer verses bookended by a lackluster, cringe worthy chorus repeating the line “Little Children.” It’s a tale of possessed children who slaughter their parents, and its bridge pays appropriate homage to King Diamond (kudos to Peck here), but that line just never quite sits right within the face crackin feel of the song. “Power of a God” is a rippin epic track that adds organ to the mix for mightily regal ambiance atop Leggio’s crushing martial stomp. Yet, production mars the effort once again as the organ feels superfluous in the verses, though it’s much more fluid in the choruses and bridge. None of the songs are absolute losers, and all of them are enjoyable, but only “Spirit of Vengeance,” about Marvel’s Ghost Rider, approaches greatness with an all-around package of great twin melodic riffs and leads, compelling verses, an aggressive and supremely catchy chorus and an awesome, ramping bridge.
In the end, we’re talking about a pretty ballsy change in direction for Cage that pays off in several respects but just falls flat in too many others. Let it be known that this is a good record. There’s no shortage of fist pumpin, head bangin moments on Science of Annihilation, but in the shadow of the band’s last two exemplary efforts, this one isn’t likely to stay in your playlist quite as long.