“Why? Why! WHY!!!” They screamed from amidst a swirling sea of sludgy, blackened, folky hardcore & punk-infused satanic death metal with post-industrial Viking influences.
“Why must you continue to shine a spotlight on something as over-worn and generally unsought as power metal?”
Because we’re out there, you stodgy bastards. Power metalers are alive and afoot, and we ain’t all glued to an iron (but intensely cozy) Office Depot throne on the outskirts of some swirling WoW campaign. Hell, some of us wouldn’t know a Yuan-ti if it jumped from a bush and bit us right on our studded-leather keesters.
Know this, though: One of these dark days the Earth will grow tired of humankind’s abuse and plague the lot of us to the cold, hard dirt. And even then, long after the last brick crumbles and our world reeks to the Golden Walls of Heaven of decayed flesh and smoldered bones, a single rasp will slowly rise from some unmarked pile of rubble…
“K-k-k-k-kingdom…. of steeeeeeeeel……”
And we will ride again. Magnificently. With decorative swords held high.
We like that sorta thing. And we like dragons, and secrets of steel, and fulfilling prophecies.
By God, what the Hell good is it to have all these prophecies if no one’s left with an interest to fulfill them? When was the last time Altar of Plagues or Pig Destroyer did anything about prophecy fulfillment? Fucking never, that’s when. Leave that shit to some blind-assed guardians, homies.
And yeah, we know the formula is… Well, really formulaic. But it’s okay. Formulas work. Like that latest animated adventure where the hero didn’t know he or she was a hero until he or she was thrust into the face of adversity and subsequently rose to magnificent power and triumphed. And he got the girl, or she got the boy, and the person he or she thought was a twat didn’t actually turn out to be a twat. Or the scene where you just know it’s a goddamn cat that’s about to jump out of that closet and not the skin-ribboning maniac that’s actually hiding beneath that pile of coats over there.
Well, the power metal formula works in a similar manner. The most recognizable take on the genre—the version that branched out of Europe in the mid-to-late 80s—has been cranking out varying degrees of Helloween and Blind Guardian like Pixar hweerfing up buck-toothed hillbilly cars and misunderstood rodents. The most difficult task: Figuring out which offerings deserve the full price of admission and which should be saved for the $1.99 DVD from the Chinese market on the corner that’s probably dubbed in Kurdish.
The good news for power metal fans is that 2014 has been particularly good to us. I’ve already talked about two key contenders: Gamma Ray’s thoroughly enjoyable return to the spotlight with Empire of the Undead (review here), and the possibly-more-suited-for-a-progressive-metal-tag brilliance of Anubis Gate’s Horizons (review here). But a lot more has hit the table of late, which is the primary reason I continue to push occasional editorials such as these.
So here’s the plan. Today, three albums I consider to be top contenders for any power metal fan’s immediate attention and hard-earned cash. Tomorrow, three more worthy contenders for the folks who need a little extra, along with one surprise that landed outta nowhere, and three highly touted records that ultimately fell short.
Enough jabbering. Into the pool…
Falconer – Black Moon Rising
I remember quite enjoying Falconer’s debut and its follow-up, Chapters from a Vale Forlorn. But it’s been probably ten years since I’ve listened to a power metal album as much as I have this one (the last being Nocturnal Rites’ absurdly infectious Grand Illusion), and I’ll confirm right off the bat that Black Moon Rising represents the best recording these Swedes have produced to date.
THE GOOD: Falconer manages modern power metal aggression without the use of gimmicks such as chuggah-shuggah-Meshuggahing and ill-fitting extreme vocals. Plus, they really just sound like, well, Falconer, as opposed to being outright Helloween/Blind Guardian rips.
Ren-faire evidence still bubbles to the surface, particularly in “Scoundrel and the Squire,” and also thanks to the album’s blanketing arm-swinging gait. But the aggressiveness behind songs such as “Locust Swarm,” “Halls and Chambers,” “Wasteland” and “Age of Runes” make Black Moon Rising a prime contender for those interested in power metal that’s not too flowery.
Additionally, vocalist Mathias Blad is one of the best in power metal today. His delivery is smooth and with an abundance of heart, and it never stretches into the sort of falsetto that some folks have a hard time digesting.
THE BAD: Surprisingly, the production is a bit flat in spots, despite plopping Andy LaRocque behind the dials.
Killing cuts: “Black Moon Rising” (that CHORUS!!), “In Ruins” and “There’s a Crow on the Barrow.”
Noble Beast – Noble Beast
GAAAHHHH!! Where the who? What? How? Where the Hell did these guys come from? Does Minneapolis have that amazing Dungeons & Dragons roller coaster that rips people in and out of Venger’s back yard? Something tells me these dudes wouldn’t waste that sweet energy bow on just stunning their enemies, either. Fucking Hank.
THE GOOD: From the moment Noble Beast’s fantastic self-titled debut starts to the very moment it ends, the emphasis is placed on charging the stallion with froth-mouthed Rottweilers running full-bore alongside. And even when the pedal isn’t totally to the metal – the acoustic driven “The Dragon Reborn” and “We Burn,” for example – there’s still enough of a burly swing and stress placed on contagious choruses to make the full ride as glorious as Orm Tostesson’s ginger beard.
The Blind Guardian influence is arrogantly tattooed up and down the sleeves, but it’s all done with a level of expertise that’s frankly a bit shocking, considering this is the band’s first official foray. All the galloping, the fiery leads, the beer hall choruses – it’s 100% pure-grade power from the gate and all the way through to the finish line.
THE BAD: Yeah, I got nothin’.
Killing cuts: “Behold the Face of Your Enemy,” “Master of Depravity” and “Peeling Back the Veil.”
Crystal Eyes – Killer
I really don’t understand why Sweden’s Crystal Eyes doesn’t get the same universal attention as the Gamma Rays and Primal Fears of the world. Fifteen years and seven remarkably consistent full-lengths should be enough, yet they remain comparitively unhailed. I also don’t understand why guitarist Mikael Dahl hasn’t maintained vocal duties since day one; Killer marks his first return since the band’s debut back in 1999, and he is fantastic.
THE GOOD: Although its overall tread is lighter than the selections from Falconer and Noble Beast, Killer further conveys the harder angle of Euro power metal that abstains from excessive blithe & bounce.
Early Helloween is the most obvious relation, but there’s also a welcome nod to late 80s/early 90s era King Diamond, thanks in a large part to Dahl’s ability to absolutely NAIL the high notes (“Hail the Fallen” – Wow.) The album also flashes moments of melodic hard rock – “Spotlight Rebel,” “The Lord of Chaos” and closer “Dogs on Holy Ground” – and those who really dig spirited leads, get ready to shit your faces off.
THE BAD: Not gonna lie. I don’t like the album cover. Points for execution (ouch!), but leave the ladies alone, lads. Plus, it’s a total rip of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond.
Killing cuts: “Warrior,” “Hail the Fallen” and “Forgotten Realms.”