JUDICATOR AND THE DURABILITY OF HEAVY METAL
Anyone who has ever read a statement from a media outlet making a claim of [BAND X] “saving heavy metal” hopefully knows to 1) immediately disregard everything the author has ever written, and 2) to approach whatever album spurred the report in the same manner in which they would receive Olive Garden’s “World’s Greatest Alfredo Pasta.”
The clear fact is this: Heavy metal will never need saving, because heavy metal – barring some magical expunction of the human race from the universe – will never find itself in a situation where a final, gasping breath is finally taken. Why? Because of Judicator.
Wait, no… Bands like Judicator. I am a blockhead, but I can be a pragmatic blockhead.
Praising a band for their skill in helping to protect and preserve is a lot different than tacking a Savior-like quality to a single group just because their brand of heaviness nets enough of the general population to land mugs on Rolling Stone and CDs at some smelly Barnes & Noble. Judicator and those of their ilk are vital for the simple reason that they embody many of the virtues that have been fundamental for the genre’s durability since its very dawn: Be Resolute, be Rabid, be Resourceful, and be… Hell, I can’t think of a suitable “R” word for talented.
• Ritalented [ri-tal-uh n-tid] adjective 1. absurdly proficient with talent or ability: “Jeff Foxworthy is ritalented at making me want to saw off my own head with razor wire.”
These guys are resolute in their determination to prosper, despite playing a style of metal that’s long been sidestepped in the U.S.; they are rabid in their youth and in the exhilaration radiating from their play; they are resourceful by virtue of releasing a grade-A piece of work without the help of a record label; and they are ritalented in that the players display the sort of chops one might expect from those who have already been in the game for decades.
JUDICATOR AND BALLS OF STEEL
Most people involved with this genre understand that the power metal end of the spectrum ain’t exactly identified as a pioneer in terms of lyrical innovation. A swing of the sword here, a whirling magic missile there, and perhaps tie it all up with an anthem hailing “two-wheeled iron steeds.” – it’s a contented, if not predictable game.
Well, how about the Allfather of buzzkills: Cancer. Not exactly a subject that fits neat & tidy within power metal’s primarily bouncy, epic design. But here it is, in all its lethal infamy, hammering the unexpected darkness rooted within At the Expense of Humanity directly into your heart. Vocalist John Yelland lost his brother to the disease, and this record serves as a means to not only vent the harsh details of that experience, but also to explore some of the more esoteric reflections that can occur when faced with such a harrowing event.
Yelland’s delivery is Hansi Kürsch/Blind Guardian through-and-through – almost frighteningly so – but his skill in using that immediately recognizable multi-layered approach to give a voice to the wealth of moods crucial for such an emotional ride is impressive. So, in a sense, the Kürsch design is almost essential.
Fear, confusion, resignation, grief, anger, absolution: All these sentiments are belted out with a poise and determination befitting of someone who is clearly battling demons tooth & nail and hoping to cast them to the blaze, and with nary a flat-point to be found. At times, the candor is equal parts severe and unsettling:
“Wishing silently just to cry and curl up on the floor
Looking down at him, pale and sunken eyes, bony fingers and rib cage
Rage, rage in my heart, dying to kill, pull all the flesh from the bone
Sinew from bone, stabbing to death, all that’s repressed and
Rage, rage in my heart, dying to die, easy as one finger’s pull
Pull the trigger, end it all now, nothing is worthwhile
Day by day I see him fade
Day by day I want to follow him
Fading time, his mind is dulling like a blunted spear once proud
Kill the pain, benumb him. Dull his senses, just let him fade away
Sleep away to stop the pain
Pretty soon he’ll fall asleep for good”
Emotions become increasingly feverish as the story pushes forward. Hopes are dashed to bits, internal demons stoke the fires like total dicks, and rifts within the family flare when everyone gathers as John’s brother slowly succumbs to the disease. Harsh growls (Paul Black) urge the frenzy on two of the latter tracks, and female vocals (Mercedes Victoria) lend a mother’s voice to the particularly emotional “Life Support.” To be perfectly honest, I’ve never really been all that wild about grand theatrics in metal that lend different voices to contrasting characters, but they’re worked into At the Expense of Humanity with a smooth enough touch that distraction is negligible.
In the end, a semblance of peace is thankfully found.
“Mockery of human form
Spirit child, you’re now reborn
Enter through these astral gates, fly beyond and seal your fate
Dreaming of you now, wondering if you’re still here
Move through the arches, the dark behind the doorway now
Glitches of gold in the sky above me
Wince at its light as you cry in glory
Now that you have eternity at your hands
Will you find all you sought before?
Fantasy renewed yet different
Given life anew, but skewed and warped.”
JUDICATOR AND THE GLORY OF POWER METAL IN 2015
Talent and a stirring narrative can obviously go a long way, but an album ain’t about to fully jibe unless you happen to waggle on the same frequency. As indicated above, the design here is predominantly power metal. Exceptional power metal. Had the record been released in 2014, Judicator would have run directly alongside Noble Beast, Crystal Eyes and Falconer for blue-ribbon honors. In terms of 2015, At the Expense of Humanity represents the year’s first truly sterling release to gallop up and out into the spotlight. Is it cosmic enough to tempt even those normally repelled by the style? Probably not. The overwhelming Blind Guardianisms shotgunned from the speakers via John Yelland’s vocals are probably enough to stave off casual passers-by. But the record really is much more than, say, Nightfall in Middle-Earth Pt II.
First and foremost, this is a Hell-of-a dark ride. Obviously the subject matter is about as solemn as you can get, and although the record flashes many of power metal’s definitive hooks, principle song-writer/multi-instrumentalist Tony Cordisco and keyboardist Tyler Sherrill do a wonderful job of building a composition that coils and strengthens the mostly somber tone conveyed through Yelland’s words and voice.
If you were aboard for the previous two Judicator records, this new trek delivers a marked improvement in overall flow and balance, which I’m sure is facilitated by the addition of an actual drummer (Jordan Elcess), an exaggerated presence of bass (Joseph Palomares) and a heightened keyboard presence. As an appropriate aside, a great deal of this record’s overall warmth is owed to the deluge of keyboard break-outs that charge alongside many of the guitar leads. The last time I recall keys playing such a crucial role was probably Amorphis’ Elegy.
The riffs are aggressive when the going gets tough – “Coping Mechanism,” and throughout the crux of “Nemesis/Fratricide” and “Autophagia” – which gives a good portion of the record more of a speed metal feel. But the many moments of grief and suffering are never too far removed and give abundant opportunity for mellow, moody stretches as well. The pleasant acoustic guitar that bends in and out of “How Long Can You Live Forever,” for example, or the glum emphasis at the heart of “Cannibalistic Mind.” Similarly, if you remain impervious to the beautiful manner in which Jordan’s nimble cymbal-play curls around that melodic little stretch at the 3:20 mark of the fantastic “God’s Failures,” you very well may have a leaden heart.
Also providing a fair BG disconnect is the fact that At the Expense of Humanity spends as much time flashing progressive metal tendencies as it does from the power spectrum. Essentially every tune extends multiple temperaments that bend and push the level of intricacy and intensity, with a particular focal point occurring via “Life Support,” a knotty opus directly in the center that crams all the feelingest of feelings into its 11-minutes.
My chief criticism is one that’s managed to surface on numerous occasions this year: The album is too long. 67 minutes is an ambitious commitment for a population that continues to struggle with increasingly reduced attention spans. And yes, the irony of my throwing such an objection toward this release while being more wordy than a cellular plan receipt is not lost on me. But exceptional works often inspire in-depth examinations, and At the Expense of Humanity is most certainly something that should be considered exceptional.
JUDICATE NOT, LEST YE BE OF GOOD TASTE
With samples and full albums a mere click away, readers often look to sites such as ours to do more than simply break down what something sounds like. We’re here because, like you, we are music freaks who love metal, and we want to celebrate its merits, discuss its shortcomings, and provide a means to facilitate its perpetuation. As such, one of the most rewarding factors of this gig is getting an opportunity to ensure that high quality under-the-radar acts such as Judicator get their due share of the limelight. These guys are clearly in it for the sheer love of the game. And that’s a good thing, considering 1) they’re good at it, and 2) I think everyone now has a deep understanding that no one stands a chance of making a comfy living by wearing a buzzsaw codpiece on stage, so there’s little other reason to be here.
At the Expense of Humanity is raw in its openness, deliberate in its fealties, and 100% worthy of attention on all fronts. Get this sucker in your ears.