Prior to receiving Desolate Kings for review, I’d never heard of Oracle, and my guess is, prior to reading this, neither have you. The band’s relative obscurity aside, this comprehensive retrospective on the brief career of this North Carolinian quasi-Christian collective is certainly enjoyable in its best moments.
Starting in the early 1990s, Oracle crafted some stout and thrashy power metal, gifted as they were with the intimidating pipes of Shawn Pelata. Pelata’s multi-octave range was (and is) impressive, his piercing falsetto exactly that and his gruffer midrange voice bringing similarities to the likes of early Phil Anselmo, Phil Rind (Sacred Reich), and mid-period Erik AK (Flotsam & Jetsam), melodic and leathery and broken up with that Halford-ian shriek. Although Oracle was a power metal act at heart, Pelata’s snarling chest voice and some groovy chunky riffing kept one of their collective feet firmly on the power-thrash line, treading that same middle heavier-than-trad-but-more-trad-than-heavy ground that Metal Church always occupied.
With Pelata on the mic, Oracle managed a four-song demo and their sole label-released effort, the Selah EP, which serves as both the opening of this collection and the band’s finest recording. Being as it was Oracle’s most professional effort, Selah’s production is the best of anything on hand, although it, too—like everything here—is dated with the definite stylings of early 90s metal. Overall, the production on Desolate Kings varies from recording to recording, as one would expect, but it’s obvious that great care was taken in the mastering of the compilation—certain tracks are rawer than others, but everything fits together sonically as neatly as could be.
After the Selah EP, Pelata departed and guitarist Robert Kerns took over vocal duties, recording the two tracks that made up the band’s 1993 demo, the band’s final release. Kerns’ voice is lower, grungier and less shrieking power-metal than Pelata’s, and what it makes up in modernization, it lacks in dynamics and distinctiveness. The two tunes from that 1993 demo are a bit more aggressive, more groove-thrash than their predecessors—the band was audibly trying to keep up with the changing times—but overall, neither supersedes the Selah material, and neither matches the professionalism and simple fury of the Pelata-fronted days. As a bonus for the dedicated Oracle fan, at Desolate Kings’ close, we’re treated to alternate vocal versions of the band’s earlier recordings, with Pelata back on hand. These different demos certainly don’t surpass the other versions of the same material, but they’re there, if only to further paint the portrait of a band in various stages of development.
Post-Oracle, Shawn Pelata would later turn up in a few outfits, perhaps most notably (in extreme metal circles) as a guest vocalist on Killwhitneydead records, a fact that also partly explains this whole affair, as Divebomb is a side label of KWD homestead Tribunal and both labels are owned by KWD mainstay Matt Rudzinski. Pelata’s Journey-esque melodic hard-rock band Line Of Fire has also released records through Divebomb.
As good as the best material here is, due to the limited scope of the band’s catalog, Desolate Kings still isn’t an absolutely must-have diamond-under-the-dirt for anyone but the already converted. Oracle was a good band, with some surprisingly good metal to their credit, and they could’ve been a contender, I suppose, but things didn’t work out. Now, after all these years, Divebomb is kind enough to unearth and repackage Oracle’s limited run, and the best part of what’s here is tight and well-done and, as such, Kings is a nice collection. Fans will want this, of course, and beyond that, those listeners familiar with or interested in the early-90s scene—that moment wherein things teetered upon the edge between Painkiller scream and Chaos A.D. groovy chunk—will find Desolate Kings to be a solid snapshot of an underground band at the time and worth some exploration.