Lunar Shadow – The Smokeless Fires Review

Old age, or even the precipice below it, distorts time. You spent most of your life in the first 18 years, where moments were moments, then seconds, then minutes. But over time the moments can stretch into days, weeks, years. Which is to say, in my head, Nirvana released Bleach a few years ago, Maiden toured for Powerslave maybe a decade ago and I heard my first Who song maybe twenty years ago when I was just a child.

It makes things like trends feel like fads, and movements feel like trends, as well. I suppose the opposite might be true when you are a kid, of course. Judas Priest was one of the biggest selling artists and arena draws in the world the entire time I was a teenager. To this day they seem larger than life and one of the leviathans of the scene. Nile, Opeth and even Slayer are Johnny-come-lately pretenders…in my head. Time is, as we all have learned, relative both in terms of gravity / energy and brain function.

So it is I sit here pondering the current trend of interesting power / trad bands as though it were in fact a trend. But I have been pondering it for a long time, actually—since the early 2000s. That is not so much a trend as a movement. It is as established in the modern metal mindset as death or black or grind at this point. In fact, it may be that there was a briefer period where it was not relevant than otherwise.

That said, as an adult I was never really moved by it. It was always a bit too clean, a bit too form over function. This was true for the acts of my youth—Europe, Steeler and  shred bands like Racer X and M.A.R.S. These bands too placed a higher emphasis on what they were than on splattering me with mud and blood.

Release date: June 21, 2019. Label: Cruz Del Sur.
I suppose that’s why once thrash, speed and finally death metal wandered my way I fell into them like a sleepy baby into a mother’s arms or some shit. I wanted some ugly in my music. That still colors my views to this day, so to approach Lunar Shadow I almost have to remove myself from my taste to get at the value of this record. No easy task.

But fuck me if that is not the job, right?

So how about it? Right off the bat, the vocals are good. That’s a great sign. Robert Rottig is not trying to place himself before the actual songs, instead choosing to work with them, keep out of the band’s way, and exercise self-control. It makes a huge difference for any clean vocal-led band. We get to hear the songs while he sings, instead of in between.

Right off the next bat, the musicianship is power metal musicianship. It’s shreddy as fuck. Everyone is really, really good at what they do. Max Birbaum’s lead work is melodic, lightning quick and precise. The rhythm section has enough juice to keep the compositions lively—or not, as the case may be. But whatever the mood calls for, the musicianship is up to the task.

Right off the third bat, the songs themselves. Honestly, these are not the most gripping trad songs I have heard. This year. They are not bad songs, but they can come off strangely lackluster for such a dazzly genre, but in congregate. You won’t be able to point to many places where the band is failing to drive hard enough. But by the time the album is winding down, you feel like maybe it is for the best.

It starts out on an extremely strong foot. “Catch Fire” does just that. Of course there is a little baroque intro and warm up jam, but once the song starts proper you are likely to get hooked through the cheeks. Rocking, thrashing, waltzing and thrashing again, it sets an atmospherically high standard for the listener. Catchy chorus, moshy mid-paced breaks, fluid solos…it’s really, really cool.

“Conajohara No More” does a fair job of maintaining the excitement, but falls prey to one of the tendencies the rest of the record often succumbs to: baroquey slow jams. They are not too distracting here, but they will become an issue as the album progresses. Still, a strong track. “Roses” is a classic mid-paced rocker which, although not nearly as invigorating as the previous two tracks, actually does what it sets out to do perfectly. It is an arena song, a classic metal track pulled off without a hitch.

Things start to change on “Pretend,” a pure piano ballad. It’s not a bad song, but it suffers from a severe lack of memorability. It ends up an emphatic piece of filler, which can’t have been the goal, considering it’s length and the care of the crafting. It might be forgivable, and even charming, but for the fact that each time I listened to the record, at this juncture my attention waned and never really returned. It is as though the track breaks whatever spell the band casts with the first three tracks, and they can’t really recast it.

Which is a shame. As I made myself delve into the rest of the album, I found a lot to like. “Laurelindórenan” is a charging number that nearly matches “Catch Fire” in intensity and catchiness. Nearly. But it really needed to match it exactly for me, and it didn’t. The feeling of a let down persisted. Which made “Red Nails (For The Pillar Of Death)” come off as overlong and over ambitious, which it kind of isn’t. It’s an epic track with some grabbing riffs and rhythms…and too many slow down moments. Again, listen to it just as a song and it is plenty cool. But in context it just doesn’t have the fire the second half of the record needs, and as it is the longest track, it engenders a feeling of tedium, of all things.

Closing the record is “Hawk of the Hills”, another stab at epicness which works on its own, but not in context. Breathing the coldness of a nearly black metal style salvo into the opening minutes is a great move. This record could use some filth. But the lyric is another dragger / sprinter, and at this point the draggers are really dragging. Not even the blasting darkness juxtaposed with the soaring leads can save the second half.

I do not at all want to put anyone off this album. I will add these songs to a random mix with other bands and be very happy when they pop up. But I just don’t think I will ever want to sit through the whole record AS a record again. It happens. Maiden’s Piece of Mind was like that for me, as was Seasons in the Abyss by Slayer. Lots of great songs, even classics, just not as assembled. So Lunar Shadow are in good company. Who knows but that their next album will solve the broken spell issue and become one of the greats. Here is hoping, because the band, for all that they are not my style of metal, have the goods.

Posted by Chris Sessions

I write for Last Rites, but in my mind it is spelled Lassed Writes because I am a dreamer.

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