The clearest way to sum up power metal in 2017 is to relate it to the abundance of superhero movies and shows from 2017: it’s out there in numbers and desperately craves broad appeal; it’s frequently glossy, vivid and one-dimensional; and at this point, the most spectacular bit about it all is how spectacularly formulaic it’s become, even with regard to the good stuff.
If you cared enough to notice, 2017 delivered Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Logan, Justice League, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Legion, The Punisher, Iron Fist, The Defenders, Inhumans, Krypton, The Gifted and probably about a hundred additional hours of elaborately costumed humans defying gravity, defending the defenseless, coping with dubious principles, safeguarding humanity, and challenging the boundaries of death, all while being shot at, blown up, cursed, caged and banished into oblivion using loads of studio trickery. Some did it better than others, some had a moderately unique approach, but all of it was done well within protocol guidelines.
If you cared enough to notice, 2017 delivered Beast in Black, Palantír, Pyramaze, Lancer, Almanac, Arrayan Path, Astral Doors, Dream Evil, Cellador, Eagleheart, Bloodbound, Hamka, The Ferrymen, Firewind, Edenbridge, Power Quest, MindMaze, Jorn and probably about a hundred additional hours of elaborately costumed humans defying trends, defending kings, riding dragons, striving for destinies, rising from various ashes, and driving vocal hooks into brains, all while extravagantly intro-ing, excessively sweetening, occasionally speeding, mostly bebopping, and absolutely positively testing the often fuzzy line that separates “empowered” from straight-up cornballing. Some did it better than others, some had a moderately unique approach, but all of it was done well within a strict set of trade guidelines that haven’t changed much since Blind Guardian put a further twist in the Helloween myth nearly three decades ago.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty power metal albums ended up wafting across my nose in 2017. Those numbers may not seem significant compared to what was produced through black, death and whatever-the-hell else might be considered metal’s flavor of the month (crustgaze?), but it’s a notable amount in a world where 90% of what gets delivered sounds like bands competing to play Blind Guardian in a shitty Michael Bay film. In a nutshell, dealing with thirty power metal albums essentially equates to a whole mess of mucking through boilerplate sing-songy forests and bargain-basement feel-goodery, and a significant portion of the fare dropped by bands that have delivered before felt like carbon-copied homework from the past that was handed in on the run. So, 2017 wasn’t terribly kind to power metal as a whole, and no one really did anything outside of what was expected.
Regardless, most fans of this off-shoot ain’t exactly looking for remixed versions of Rhapsody’s more symphonic face with modern hip hop beats, and hell always manages to break loose when a band has the gall to attempt mixing, say, harsh vocals into the weathered formula, so expecting intrepidness is generally a fruitless endeavor. Bottom line: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but at least have the courtesy of making it sound like you care to keep the genre above ground.
With that in mind, I still found goodness to return to on a regular basis, and keeping with tradition, I have chosen to be a little liberal with the tag as to allow a handful of the more progressive-leaning acts into the game. Some of these releases have already been covered here at Last Rites, but six were not, which is the driving force for justifying yet another edition of We Have the Power, even during a fairly mediocre year for power metal…
10. Evertale – The Great Brotherwar
Does that album cover remind you of early 90s Blind Guardian? Good, because it’s done by the same guy—Andreas Marschall—and it’s a clear indicator of what’s in store for the next hour: Blind Guardian. I mean Everguardian. Blind Tale. Blind Guardian done through an Evertale app called Instaguardian. You still dig the bands that continue to rehash the Euro speed metal side of power, yes? Well then, stuff Evertale in your Shire pipe and smoke it.
The Great Brotherwar (Note: the jury is out whether or not said war involves an epic battle over the TV remote in the den) pays 100% fealty to the speedier years of early BG, minus a few layers of vocal hook. The guitars are more weedly-weedly than André Olbrich packed into a four-foot bong, and the amount of “brother this, brother that” fighting side-by-side until the dragons return is sometimes enough to make you want to put your head through the wall and into SOMEWHERE FAR BEYOND. Even so, if you like it punchy, bright, armored, weedly-weedly and pedal-to-the-metal from start to finish, and you don’t mind a carbon copy of a carbon copied copy of a carbon copy, The Great Brotherwar will definitely scratch your itch.
9. Valor – Arrogance: The Fall
Every street corner in Greece features a live power metal band at the ready for brightening moods and helping people forget the fact that the Earth will be ending any fucking day now. Unfortunately, many of those bands make folks wish the end would come sooner. Not the case for Valor, luckily, as these dudes produce a brand of power metal that leans harder on traditional heavy metal roots, as opposed to the candy-coated speed metal variety so many of their peers prefer, and they routinely do it well. Arrogance: The Fall features a mostly mid-paced gallop that very occasionally flashes short bursts of speed, and that’s strangely refreshing in this particular field. There are no schmaltzy ballads, no squirrelly sing-alongs, and absolutely no infusions of pop, which makes the record ideal for those who don’t particularly appreciate the genre’s often maddening emphasis on optimism. Plus, vocalist Vaggelis Krouskas hails from the Blaze Bayley school of crooning, which doesn’t happen enough in power metal these days.
8. Nocturnal Rites – Phoenix
In 2005, Nocturnal Rites dropped the hugely uplifting Grand Illusion, but they followed it in 2007 with the aptly titled The 8th Sin, which was basically the equivalent of expecting a joyous serving of yummy soft-serve chocolate ice cream and getting a not-so-joyous serving of *wink wink* soft-served chocolate ice cream *wink wink*. (P.S. I’m talking about shit. The album was shit.) With album number nine, Phoenix, Nocturnal Rites has thankfully returned to form—Grand Illusion form, to a tee.
The album kicks off a little too jump-the-fuck-uppy with “A Heart as Black as Coal,” but outside of a handful of other moments where the band infuses that (rather unfortunate) glow stick-twirling club scene electronic element, the songs are mostly packed to excess with Lindqvist’s penchant for belting out ear-worming choruses surrounded by ridiculously uplifting leads. There’s a palpable weight here, too, which helps offset the sugary poppiness they’re quite fond of hawking.
It’s been a long ten year interval, and while Phoenix fails to break any form of new ground, the ground it retreads finds Nocturnal Rites doing what they do best: galvanizing.
7. Seven Kingdoms – Decennium
Last Rites’ own Andrew Edmunds is a total lunkhead, but his review earlier this year was right on the mark when it stated, “What it carries forth in speedy riffage, Decennium backs up doubly in soaring vocal hooks.”
What sets this record apart from the stacks of other speedy power metal contenders in 2017 is the quality of the raw riffing that bolsters Sabrina Valentine’s catchy, operatic delivery. Case in point, 3:25 into the opening “Stargazer,” where a beautifully tuff riff breakout drops like a hammer and eventually gives way to a wonderfully bubbly lead. The record features a number of such moments, even if the overall energy level admittedly begins to lag toward the back end.
Decennium marks yet another notch in the victory column for the ever expanding ranks of young, potent U.S. power metal acts that are doing whatever it takes to ensure that the genre remains resilient and heavy. Just please please please, someone tell me which Blind Guardian song “The Tale of Deathface Ginny” echos—it’s been driving me insane for the better part of the last ten months.
6. Unleash the Archers – Apex
Last Rites’ own Manny-O-War is a complete blockhead, but he was right on the money when he stated in his review of this record, “[Apex] is one of those albums where your favorite track will change with each listen.”
Essentially every tune here has a hook in the chorus or fretwork that sticks to the ribs, and all facets of the band have improved since 2015’s Time Stand Still. Brittney Slayes voice is absolutely cracking, and the music is uplifting without ever feeling corny and melodic without belting you over the head with 10000 leads.
Also working in Apex‘s advantage, UtA’s formula continues to lean further away from a fairly muted melodeath realm and fully into the gloriously epic kingdom of pompous, invigorating power. Not entirely free of melodeathisms, mind you, thanks to some harsh vocals here and there, but close enough to keep even the most finicky power aficionados interested in what might head down the pike next.
5. Steel Seal – The Lion’s Den
Yes, the band is likely suggesting “seal” in terms of some boring ol’ stamp of some sort, but let’s go ahead and assume that these courageous Italians are intentionally celebrating the existence of some mythical, iron-clad marine mammal whose biggest concern is keeping blubber from bursting its armor at the seams as it wobbles into battle.
Wonderfully absurd name aside, Steel Seal’s fundamental selling point for album number three, The Lion’s Den (where a seal would super-duper benefit from being steel), is the fact that they now count the fabulous Fabio Lione as vocalist, and he sounds predictably superb on each and every tune, despite embellishing the warble a bit too much here and there. Beyond the voice, The Lion’s Den stands as a notable 2017 release because, similar to the aforementioned Valor record, it eschews the typical speed metal face of power in favor of something that reaches a bit further back in the heavy metal time machine. In this case, a blend of the sort of neo-classical style that Yngwie Malmsteen so graciously made famous during the Marching Out years. As such, expect loads of hard-rockin’ riffs, ample Rainbow/Deep Purple organ-play, and a copious amount of bright leads in constant aerial combat with keytar. Can we go ahead and suspect that’s a keytar we’re hearing? Keytawrsome.
4. Ironflame – Lightning Strikes the Crown
Generally speaking, the U.S. ain’t exactly triumphing at a whole hell of a lot lately. But we’re killing it in terms of modern power metal, thanks to a marked resurgence from young bands that continue to renounce the goofier side of the coin in favor of honoring root bands such as Jag Panzer, Helstar, Liege Lord and the like for an interpretation that’s decidedly heavier. Ohio’s Ironflame is just such a band, and their debut, Lightning Strikes the Crown, does a remarkable job of delivering 40 minutes of zero bullshit USPM in a similar vein as Pharaoh and Ancient Empire (who, incidentally, are about to drop a new record that would likely bully this list if it had dropped sooner).
Beyond the rather enjoyable fare delivered, what’s also notable here is the fact that a single person is responsible for the project’s conception, and some may be surprised to discover precisely who sits at the helm. Andrew D’Cagna is perhaps better known for his work in the more extreme realms of Coldfells, Nechochwen and Obsequiae, but he apparently has a hell of a penchant for the POWAH! as well, as he’s responsible for literally everything outside of the solos on Lightning Strikes the Crown. The riffs and rhythm are strong, the guest solos (from Jim Dofka, Aaron Carey, Justin Wood and Johnathan Crow) are top-shelf, and the infectious choruses are delivered by way of a gritty voice not unlike the aforementioned Ancient Empire’s head honcho, Joe Liszt. All in all, one of the year’s more surprising victories to drop right out of the blue.
3. Jag Panzer – The Deviant Chord
Last Rites’ own Andrew Edmunds is an unabashed beefhead, but he was right as rain when he stated the following in a review of this record earlier this year: “Whatever fan demand caused Jag Panzer to reconsider its retirement was a gift to all of us—The Deviant Chord sees these guys as strong as they’ve been in almost two decades.”
Everyone involved here has played a major role in Jag Panzer stretching back to the very early 80s—guitarist Mark Briody and bassist John Tetley for every full-length, drummer Rikard Stjernquist for all save the debut, vocalist Harry Conklin for everything but two, and this marks the first return of additional guitarist Joey Tafolla since 1997’s excellent The Fourth Judgement. Over thirty years of interplay such as this equates to a level of proficiency and sincerity that’s expectedly through the roof, and album number ten, The Deviant Chord, delivers from every conceivable angle. The leads are brilliant, the riffs and rhythm swing with a noticeable weight, and Harry Conklin honestly has no fucking business still sounding this good.
Look no further than the band’s classic catalog for a suitable reference point, and understand that Jag Panzer’s formula is one that helped shape the prototype for a ballsy, galloping interpretation of the style that was “power metal” before the term became largely associated with the more sugary, bouncier European slant.
2. Witherfall – Nocturnes and Requiems
Last Rites’ own Michael “Captain” Wuensch is a lummox of epic proportions, but he was really onto something earlier this year when he said “Nocturnes and Requiems is the sort of record that gives aspiring [guitar] players heart palpitations, because the amount of riffs, leads (my GOD, these leads) and sudden splinters into different styles throughout these 48 minutes is remarkable, which is sure to give the record serious legs.”
Labeling this strictly power metal is admittedly a stretch, given the volume of techniques stretched across this record. Nonetheless, there are clear power metal elements present, and the overlap between power and the progressive end of the metal spectrum is common enough that most labels that deal in one generally deal equally with the other, so forward we march.
Nocturnes and Requiems throws down pretty much everything an aficionado of the style would demand: impeccable guitar work, nimble drumming, an actual bass presence (praised be), a ridiculous vocal range, and, perhaps more than anything else, a compelling sense of adventure or escapism. What sets this record apart from the rest of the pack is the fact that, whether intentional or not, Witherfall instills a strong King Diamond impression into the overall blueprint, giving the full 45 minutes a wonderfully dark, irresistible narrative that’s exceedingly fun to return to again and again.
1. Anubis Gate – Covered in Black
I’ve been singing Anubis Gate praises under the banner of MetalReview/Last Rites for the better part of the last seven years, and the only reason Covered in Black hasn’t found its way onto the site until this very moment is based on the fact that the label flat-out refused to send out advance promos for streaming/download. That doesn’t necessarily equate to non-coverage, but by the time I had a copy in hand and had the chance to run through the songs enough times to consider them fully assimilated, my backlog for new(er) releases was up to the ceiling.
Entitled grumble-grousing aside, I knew I’d eventually find a way to drop some sort of analysis for this thing, because it’s excellent and represents a very pleasant return to form after the slight (and I mean slight) step back that was 2014’s Horizon. To the point, Covered in Black represents the most ambitious exploit these jubilant Danes have produced to date. The heavy moments are their heaviest (we always say that, don’t we?), the lighter moments are their most Pink Floydy (perhaps too Pink Floydy, for some), and the sugary choruses and refrains are, of course, like slamming a needle of warm honey right into your arm while eating a fat bowl of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs. It’s a trip that’s absolutely recommended for steady consumption from start to finish, as most of the songs end up bleeding into one another with nary a pause, and that in and of itself could be the greatest peril for those who aren’t on board with progressive power metal’s proclivity for spinning epic yarns.
Ultimately, Covered in Black is a no-brainer for anyone who counts themselves a fan of Anubis Gate, and it’s equally recommended to anyone curious to explore a band that’s become an authority on how to properly blend what could conceivably be considered contentious—power, prog, pop, electronic, rock and psychedelia—into a conclusion that’s infinitely contagious and very, very gratifying.