Dire Peril’s long-gestating debut full-length The Extraterrestrial Compendium is something of an unexpected gift in a year that has already seen new albums from guitarist Jason Ashcraft’s other band Helion Prime and vocalist John Yelland’s other band Judicator. In Dire Peril, Ashcraft writes and arranges all the music and plays bass and rhythm guitar, with Yelland handling vocals and most of the lyrics. The duo is rounded out by a number of guest musicians handling full-time drums and lead guitars alongside more traditional one-off guest spots (Unleash the Archers’s Brittney Slayes on “Queen of the Galaxy” and Arjen Anthony Lucassen on the closing track).
Despite this motley composition, the album has a strongly unified feel, due in large part to its overarching concept. With each of the album’s twelve songs based on a different sci-fi movie, The Extraterrestrial Compendium feels like a true successor to Iced Earth’s classic horror and monster flick album Horror Show. Stylistically, Dire Peril plays a tautly aggressive form of heavy metal that frequently dips into power metal territory, but there are definite hints of Iced Earth in many of the galloping speed metal licks and of Nevermore in some of the moments of more high-wire melodrama.
The harmonized dual guitar lead that kicks off the album opener “Yautja (Hunter Culture)” quickly sets a downcast note, but the verse has a snappy speed/thrash edge to it that allows Yelland to explore a slightly harsher edge to his voice than he has typically brought to Judicator. As happens so often through the album, Yelland’s acrobatic vocals are either bolstered by a multi-tracked choral effect or paired with a catchy snippet of a melodic guitar lead. “Total Recall,” meanwhile, is one of the album’s speediest and most intense songs, with Justin Tvetan laying down some seriously powerful double bass and martial staccato patterns.
“Queen of the Galaxy” is re-recorded here from Dire Peril’s 2014 EP, and Brittney Slayes provides a wonderful foil and complement to Yelland’s voice. The song has a slightly breezier, hard rock-leaning air (despite the plentiful amount of Steve Harris galloping) that is a little reminiscent of A Sound of Thunder. No matter who’s been spotlighted at any given moment, however, The Extraterrestrial Compendium is so rich and compellingly composed that you’re never more than ten seconds away from your next favorite part, whether it’s the screeching octave-split vocals that open the Starship Troopers-themed “Roughnecks” or the beguilingly nimble pre-chorus of “Enemy Mine.” Even when a ballad like “The Visitor” seems at risk of crash landing on Planet Schmaltz, Yelland’s earnest vocals and a pair of seriously breathtaking guitar solos easily right the ship.
“Blood in the Ice” is one of the most elaborate, cinematic pieces of the album, effectively capturing the paranoia and exhaustion of John Carpenter’s classic The Thing. It also has one of the most earworm-y choruses of the bunch (“Move your pawns and rooks…”), while the midsection has one of guest guitarist Taylor Washington’s best solos of the album. Starting around the 4:30 mark, the song also dips into a beautifully emotive canticle that bears the hallmarks of their majesties Blind Guardian.
At 65 minutes, The Extraterrestrial Compendium is certainly too long for each song to have maximum impact, but there aren’t any obvious candidates to cut and the album doesn’t really suffer if you break it up into shorter segments, so this is far from a damning concern. The bottom line is that Dire Peril have completely nailed the sort of vitally omnivorous heavy metal that borrows as it needs to from classic American power and speed metal as well as more theatrical and neoclassical European elements, but still retains a unique identity. Bulletproof songwriting, soaring vocals, tremendous solos, exceptional song-to-song variety, and an uncanny ability to be both a little bit tongue-in-cheek and deadly serious at the same time: what in the goddamn hell more could you ask for? This is a marvelous album.