A familiar voice is sometimes just enough pick-me-up. Now having Brainstormed for 22 years, Andy B. Franck is that familiar voice to many. More importantly, he’s that familiar voice to me.
Franck was the voice that pulled me slightly deeper into the realms of power metal with Liquid Monster in 2005. And later that same year with Symphorce’s Godspeed. The back-to-back of Liquid Monster and Downburst just a few years later made it a particularly fun time to be a Brainstorm fan.
Though he is no Mathias Blad or Fabio Lione, Andy B. Franck possesses a very specific grit that has always served Brainstorm well. Sure, some Brainstorm albums are better than others. That era immediately after Downburst was not particularly memorable. But Franck has always been a positive presence. And those albums weren’t forgettable because of his singing.
Ten years and four albums came and went before I cared enough to return to Brainstorm with 2018’s Midnight Ghost. I am sure I wasn’t the only person to seek out the familiar that year but I couldn’t resist watching the video for “Ravenous Minds” when it popped up on YouTube. There wasn’t a whole lot to it—the video or the song itself. But the sinewy riffs and expertly crafted build to the catchy chorus felt and sounded warm and comforting. The formula had me hooked.
So I approached Wall of Skulls, the band’s thirteenth full-length, with trepidation. I feared disappointment. Maybe Midnight Ghost had been an aberration. Or the result of wishful thinking—willing an album to be more than it is for the simple fact that the preceding four had been so unmemorable.
I am happy to report that Midnight Ghost was neither an aberration nor the result of wishful thinking. Rather, it was the beginning of a restart for a band that likely needed it. A retuning might be more accurate, as the recipe here (and on Midnight Ghost) is not all that different from Liquid Monster or Downburst. In fact, this album, at just over 40 minutes, may be a more direct descendant of the latter than Midnight Ghost, which deviated from the formula slightly with “Jeanne Boulet (1764),” an excellent tune in its own right but decidedly longer than the typical Brainstorm barnstormer. By contrast, the longest track here is “End of My Innocence” at 4:39.
In fact, aside from the introductory instrumental track, “Chamber Thirteen,” Wall of Skulls is nearly as trimmed of fat as Downburst, which, to my ears, was and remains peak Brainstorm. The muscular riff to melody ratio is about the same as the mid-2000s, too. Even the more melodic of the ten songs, such as “End of My Innocence” and “Glory Disappears,” maintain the momentum of heavier tracks with ripping solos and simple but effective choruses.
No matter the pace, Brainstorm plays compellingly catchy Euro power metal. If truth be told, one of Wall of Skulls’ better tracks is a slower, almost poppy number (“Holding On”). But the band shines brightest here on the speedier, riffier songs such as “My Dystopia,” “The Deceiver,” and “Stigmatized Shadows Fall.” We’re not talking Sonata Arctica’s Ecliptica or Stratovarius’s Visions, but a level a few notches above strictly catchy, super sing-a-long modern Euro power. By 2021 standards, Wall of Skulls is closer to the varied but more dynamic Final Days from Orden Ogan than it is to the more obviously anthemic arena metal of Bloodbound’s Creatures of the Dark Realm.
The album’s two guest features are a mixed bag. If the album’s production sounds similar to Midnight Ghost—and it does—that’s because Orden Ogan’s Sebastian “Seeb” Levermann produced Wall of Skulls, too. But he also sings on “Turn Off the Light,” a more traditionally mid-paced song whose principal selling point is the dual vocal attack. The other feature comes from Rage’s Peter “Peavy” Wagner, who lends his voice to “Escape the Silence,” a similarly repetitive but catchier track that benefits from the more aggressive sound.
Wall of Skulls is what I wanted from Brainstorm. No more. And certainly no less. It’s got all the comforting hallmarks—robust sound, strong songwriting, bombastic choruses, and a confident Andy B. Franck, all too willing to belt them out with his distinct charm. Granted, it’s not a perfect album. Some songs are stronger than others. And I wish the band didn’t sound so restrained at times. But, by and large, Brainstorm delivered the goods. In a year that has seen more than a few disappointments for power metal fans, that quality will not go unappreciated.