This Ram is sometimes a confusing beast.
On paper, their fiery trad metal sounds perfect – it’s heavily indebted to Judas Priest, and nods to Mercyful Fate, Accept, and Omen float around in the periphery. These Swedes fuel their riff-heavy, melodic metal with just enough spark and anger to push them into a darker, edgier territory and away from the scads of lighter denim-and-leather retro-bangers drawing life from the same spring.
But in practice, the results tend to be maddeningly just above average.
Now they’re back around, with an album cleverly entitled Rod… (Insert phallus joke #13-B… Hee-hee, I said “insert phallus.”)
On the plus side, Rod sees Ram battering back towards full strength, and in typical Ram fashion, they never quite get there – there’s no real stylistic surprises, just more of Ram doing what Ram does. Harry Granroth brings the Painkiller-meets-Russian Roulette riffs, and Oscar Carlquist brings the Halford-Byford soar, and tunes like “Declaration Of Independence” and “A Throne At Midnight” rock along in a steady just-below-excellent groove. More good than bad, those tunes and “On Wings Of No Return” are nothing to scoff at, but then again, they aren’t quite… uh… delivering the goods.
But just when you think it’s ready to be written off, Ram’s Rod hammers home (insert phallus joke #67-C), and when it does, it’ll tear your pants right off. (Insert phallus joke… oh, you get it by now…) “Gulag” is one of the strongest trad metal songs of the year, a galloping sing-along with a simple-yet-killer riff that is quite likely Ram’s strongest tune of all their five records. The entire second half of Rod, the six-part spin on a King Diamond-meets-Manilla Road sword-and-sorcery concept piece of “Ramrod The Destroyer (Parts 1 – 6)” is more win than not, although the FX-ed demonic voices and some of the theatrics don’t quite live up to the riff-and-kick-drum fire of songs like “Part 5 – Incinerating Storms” or the Priest-ly ballad “Part 3 – The Cease To Be.” (That latter one features the immortal couplet “The ramrod will never rest / never be defeated,” in case you wanted to toss in another phallus joke.)
At the end of the day, more of Ram’s Rod is successful than isn’t, and if you’ve been keeping up with Ram this long, you should be used to that – they’ve been nearly great once, terrible once, and mostly inhabit an upper-middle ground that is fun to listen to and yet never one I tend to seek out. They’ve gained some ground – just branching out into the conceptual is enough of a change to keep it interesting – and Rod is slightly better than Svbversvm (which I finally checked out in retrospect) and far better than Death. It’s not their biggest moment, but I’ve heard that sometimes it’s not the overall strength, but more the trajectory that matters most…