Pharaoh – The Powers That Be Review

At some point in every human’s existence, we discover the value of “not worrying about it.” Our parents hammer the lesson home early when we first start wondering about life’s less attractive elements—undue illness, death, and what happens once we’re eventually snuffed out—and from there we pick up the ball and sprint as life continues to throw more and more trials and tribulations into every chosen pathway. The key, as it turns out, is to look for clues that encourage a level of composure that keeps skivvies preferably untwisted. Sure, you might get carjacked while getting a 7-layer burrito at 1am, but odds are definitely in your favor that the only thing you’ll regret the next morning is the meteoric lump of biological riddles kicking the hell out of your stomach. Is your kid not really pulling the sort of grades Ivy League schools get excited about? Hey, the world needs bakers and comic book artists more than it needs another lawyer. Is Patrick Rothfuss still no closer to the close of the The Kingkiller Chronicle than he was ten years ago? Yeah, well… we’re definitely looking pretty screwed in that regard, but you get the point: Every level of concern gets thrown beneath the lens of “not worrying about it,” and more often than not, things have a way of working out.

How this relates to Pharaoh becomes all the more clear depending on how long you’ve been in the band’s corner, and that factor is likely amplified based on the amount of time you’ve stuck around Last Rites, especially if that dates back to our Metal Review forum days, because we have spent a great many years absolutely NOT shutting up about this band. The impact The Longest Night made on our crew and forum members back in 2006 was palpable and long-lasting, and with songs as strong as this jumping in from every turn, it’s not difficult to understand why:

Pharaoh’s brand of punchy, gritty yet absurdly melodic US power metal has always had a way of bridging gaps and connecting all forms of metal fans together under a shared banner of “why yes, I do quite enjoy all things mighty and epic.” So, yes, undeniably power metal, but of the class created when power metal was the next logical and more adventurous step from the NWOBHM and included bands such as Savatage, Fates Warning, and Queensryche releasing albums like this:

As time progressed—slowly, as Pharaoh has never been about prolificacy—the band did equally, but without ever losing sight of its original blueprint. With 2008’s Be Gone (their pinnacle, as far as this particular scribbler is concerned) and, most notably, with 2012’s Bury the Light, the progressive elements increased their foothold, and the spotlight once primarily occupied by singer Tim Aymar and guitarist Matt Johnsen finally began recognizing the more adventurous play from bassist Chris Kerns and drummer Chris Black. And oh, how these freshly cut paths did find captivating ways to carve knotty-new realms for our intrepid adventurers, thereby entangling fans even further within their spirited, melodically charged web.

Then… quiet. A long, disquieting sort of quiet.

At the outset, the idleness didn’t really stir undue concern, by reason of the band’s recognized patience and habit of radio silence. But as the years continued to tick by, and even amidst an unexpected resurgence of bands from every corner of the globe rekindling and redeveloping classic US power metal, the Pharaoh coffers remained shut. Aymar eventually packed up and moved; Chris Black became more active with his other projects (High Spirits, Dawnbringer and Aktor); and Johnsen and Kerns… well, they never really seemed terribly concerned with sashaying into the public eye.

WORRY RISING

But favorable clues did drop. The Metal Archives “Active” green battle light never switched status to defcon “On hold” yellow, nebulous “Unknown” orange, or—GASP—emergency “Split-up” red; Professor Black and the Pharaoh FB page occasionally hinted at stirrings when asked directly; and finally, in the middle of 2017, an album title was revealed.

Then, more quiet. Three additional long years of quiet fueled by political unrest and pandemic bedlam. Aymar lended his talents to local acts so underground even Dig Dug had trouble finding him; Professor Black focused on selling records and the initiation of the Bathory book with Kola Krauze; and Johnsen and Kerns… well, you know.

WORRY RISING

Then, at the end of 2020, truly concrete news regarding The Powers That Be officially landed. The album cover was the first thing to drop—as is law in the heavy metal sphere—which, to be perfectly honest, stirred its own bit of worry with the way it harkened back to After the Fire’s rather primitive “Netscape 7” glow. With that came the remote concern that life & times might have done their work to tarnish the Pharaoh radiance, particularly considering the truth that it’s been a decade since most of us heard a riff or a single new note from guitarist Matt Johnsen.

STOP WORRYING, YOU KICKED BAG, shouted the blockhead (read: me) at his own brain.

It’s important to keep in mind that this is same band that launched crushers such as “By the Night Sky,” “Rats and Rope” and “Graveyard of Empires” into faces across 6 years and three full-lengths, so the likelihood that the very same four members would suddenly find themselves penning tunes that sounded as if they’d fallen out of someone’s ass is thankfully quite slim. That being said, chew on the following important morsel as we move forward: You have no reason to worry about The Powers That Be.

First and foremost, after bingeing the band’s discography to excess for the better part of the last two decades, it feels amazing to hear new Pharaoh sounds coming from the Pharaoh camp in 2021. The new record is unmistakably Pharaoh, and the fact that they’ve managed to maintain the same members since day one makes it clear that a significant part of the captivation regarding this band is owed to the fact that these four individuals happen to have a very singular and triumphant chemistry that would likely fracture if any one member were to suddenly find themselves absent from the formula.

Release date: June 18, 2021. Label: Cruz Del Sur.
Given the turbulent times that painted its backdrop, it’s likely no surprise to discover that The Powers That Be is a fairly dark record, especially for Pharaoh; the album does not shy away from condemning the former administration that initiated and perpetuated unrest, discrimination and division, but it does so in a way that never feels overly moralizing. Furthermore, there are songs here that engage very personal and bleak sentiments of being overwhelmed and the desperate need for escape, but it manages the delivery without ever feeling unduly maudlin. Hope is the key, and that element in particular is forever woven into the fabric of the band’s broad perspective, largely due to the unique and fiercely fucking melodic fretwork of Matt Johnsen. The man clearly did not spend the last decade simply sitting on his hands, and anyone familiar with Pharaoh knows to expect an endless barrage of labyrinth riffing and stacks upon heaps upon mountains of solos that recall the sort of critical energy once dispensed by the hugely underrated Criss Oliva. Johnsen is of course responsible for the lion-share of the leads on this record, but the album opens with a song featuring a guest spot from Voivod’s Daniel Mongrain (!!!), and as is tradition, Jim Dofka provides a guest solo as well, this time on “Lost in the Waves.”

It would be fair to state that The Powers That Be feels a smidge less rabid about the immediate vocal hook compared to previous works, but that isn’t to say the record ain’t catchy, or that Tim Aymar has lost any of his edge. Point of fact, Aymar sounds just as one might hope a vocalist would sound after the passing of a decade: 10 additional years worth of grit, but clear indicators that the time has been spent further honing the craft. Aymar’s vocals throughout are a little huskier, which suits the overall darker tone, and he rightfully gets a full spotlight with the (perhaps) surprising inclusion of a grim ballad, “Waiting to Drown.” When coupled with a late bit of martial snare, this little unexpected gem flashes a touch of Spaghetti Western on the edges—something that might seem a bit incongruous on paper, considering the band’s history, but it works really well within the overall design of the record.

Outside of the increased darkness, the next most significant distinction in contrast to the back catalog is the added emphasis placed on the play of Chris Kerns and Chris Black. While this isn’t a new direction, it certainly takes a similar intention from 2012’s Bury the Light and shifts it to the next level. A song like “When the World Was Mine,” for example—one of the album’s more introspective numbers—exhibits all the trademark warmth we’ve come to expect from Pharaoh, but Kerns’ bass is as playful as Johnsen’s fretwork in the song’s front half, and the interplay between just him and Black’s drums after all else goes quiet around 3:20 adds a perfect pinch of individuality before the song launches into yet another bright lead.

And it’s not all doom & gloom, of course. The opening title track goes right for the throat in an almost irrationally melodic manner, “Ride Us to Hell” flies like a singing hornet, and “Freedom”—a song that all but screams “Chris Black” because of the way the it incorporates gang-shouted cries of “No! No!”—is a Celtic-hued charger that’s as allied to bands such as Dark Forest as Pharaoh’s ever been. The album also closes on a highly optimistic note; “I Can Hear Them” is the consummate Pharaoh song, packed with warmth, bright energy and what has to be considered the record’s most crucial riff breakout about 20 seconds in. By the time the tune closes out, the listener is ready to jump into a full Pharaoh binge.

Most any longtime Pharaoh fan will gladly inform you that 9 years is far too long to wait for new material from this crew, but we’re also the sort to quickly admit just how lucky we are to already have four full-lengths and an EP’s worth of greatness from them—an exceptional feat in and of itself, considering how often the quality from bands has a tendency to fluctuate. And when the end product is so consistently gratifying and restorative / curative as is Pharaoh’s music, it’s only natural to worry about the day when that wellspring will eventually run dry. Luckily, we’re not there yet, and word on the street indicates that Matt Johnsen is already working on material for the next record, so hopefully it won’t take another decade for us to hear even more grade-A epic, progressive US Pharaoh Power. Sure, life and times could very well end up getting in the way of it landing sooner rather than later, but it’s probably best to not worry about that today.

Welcome back, Pharaoh. It sure is great to hear from you again.

Posted by Captain

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; Handsome & Interesting Man; Just get evil all the time.

  1. Nice write-up, and super excited about this. The two sample tracks are great.

    Reply

  2. I am quite certain I discovered Pharaoh through this site, or its predecessor. I haven’t quite clicked with this one as with Bury the Light, but a Pharaonic year certainly beats a Pharaoh-less one.
    Many thanks to all concerned!

    Reply

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