Without a doubt, the most rewarding thing about reviewing music has been the occasional opportunity to turn people on to bands they might have missed out on otherwise, and in turn give attention and support to artists that I feel are truly deserving. I can only assume my journalist colleagues feel the same way, and also that they, like me, are left scratching their heads at why Pharaoh has not yet achieved the sort of widespread appeal that they deserve. After all, just TRY to find a negative review of their work. Good luck — Pharaoh seems to be universally appreciated, if not adored, by critics. Maybe the band is hamstrung by the fact that they don’t tour, or that the small (but excellent) Cruz Del Sur isn’t able to put the album in front of enough eyes. But maybe it’s the way which critics talk about Pharaoh that turns off potential listeners. Now that’d be some irony. Maybe the words we use that are both equally fitting yet misleading — because in the case of Pharaoh, they don’t mean the same things they do 99% of the time you read them in reviews. Words like “power metal,” “modern,” “heavily melodic,” and even “traditional.” Hell, hearing those descriptors strung together (well, all but the last one) would normally send me heading for the hills. And yet they’re all relevant to this band, which sounds simultaneously connected to the true roots of the golden era of classic metal, yet so unmistakably contemporary and has such a recognizable identity. Pharaoh knows it’s one thing to honor the past and something entirely different to be limited by it, and integral to its success is its ability to build from the original template of traditional metal and US power metal while continuing to move melodic, heavy music forward. It’s smart, genre-less music; it’s full-tilt, red-blooded heavy metal; and it’s absolutely massive.
Pharaoh’s identity remains rock solid, but on Bury the Light, the band’s fourth full-length, Pharaoh shows that it continues to be wholly uninterested in writing the same album twice. They’re obviously not making major shifts, but with each record, the band’s sound seems to grow in new directions, while keeping their core intact, their sound broadening rather than changing. This time out they have embraced some proggish tendencies, evidenced by some of the developments in song structure and in a few obvious inclusions, like the vocal effects during a passage in the impossibly infectious “Castles in the Sky,” and “The Year of the Blizzard,” which sports some serious ‘70s prog-rock vibes. Both songs also feature guest lead work, the former from Mike Wead (King Diamond) and the latter Jim Dofka (Dofka), who returns to yet another Pharaoh guest spot. The furious tempos and complexity of “Graveyard of Empires” make it another clear standout, but in truth, the album is stacked front to back with first-rate American metal.
But one of the most striking and welcome changes is that the bass work of Chris Kerns has been thrust out into equal spotlight. This includes not only being higher in the mix, but also extends to writing choices, as is clear from his chugging lines during the stop-time in the intro of album opener “Leave Me Here to Dream.” This advances the collective work of his partnership with the excellent drum work of Chris Black. And the tandem of frontman Tim Aymar and Matt Johnsen continues their jaw-dropping balance of technical brilliance and driving heft. Johnsen’s never-ending flow of crystalline leads and frenetic riffing is matched — could ONLY be matched — by Aymar’s throat-busting, all-in performance. His range and delivery is fantastic, and delivered with enough intensity that it sounds about half unhinged. It’s brilliant, and it’s the perfect voice of Pharaoh’s rousing, fist pumping POWER metal. There’s a dramatic defiance here that’s key to the impassioned feel of the material. I’ve said it before: Pharaoh is on the short list of the most important American metal bands. Stellar songwriting and excellent musicianship are rare enough accomplishments, but when they’re delivered in such a convincing contemporary style while still hitting all the marks of pure heavy metal, you get something truly rare. Bury the Light is a nearly flawless display of metal, and an absolute lock for your best of 2012 list.