There used to be these little “panning for gold” tourist traps when I was growing up, I don’t know whether they still exist or not. If memory serves, you would buy a bag of sand at the counter and take it to a trough of running water. You’d then pour handfuls from the bag of sand into a screened pan and run it through the water, sifting through the grains as they washed down-trough in search of “gold” or “silver” or “precious gems.” Looking back it was pretty clearly a grift, a fun way for kids to convince their parents to kill ten minutes and five bucks in the hopes of discovering that rock of a diamond that would finally buy that sweet Lamborghini Countach from the poster on the bedroom wall.
I recall one specific outing to such an establishment, one where I was absolutely convinced I had found a gleaming emerald in the washing sands. It wasn’t all that unbelievable was it? The house has to pay out every once in a while to keep people coming back, right? Turns out, it was a bit of a long-since shattered green beer bottle, worn smooth as a result of being eroded constantly by the sands and the waters so many times. But damn you had you try to convince me otherwise. In my eyes, what I had unearthed was a genuine, down-to-earth gem. It was the adults who were wrong, there wasn’t a chance in hell the way this treasure glimmered in the sunlight was a long-lost recyclable–in my mind it was nothing short of The Real Deal.
Of course, I had none of this perspective when I pushed play for the first time. Out of the rain and thunder of the intro, the out-of-tune but earnest guitars of “Secret Power” emerged with the subtlety of a train that’s already sparking on the edge of the tracks. There was some promise to the riffs that kept it in line though, and a bit of endearing charm to the lo-fi recording. Then the vocals hit, and the entire train careened off the rails in a glorious swan dive. They sounded so flat, almost irritated, like vocalist/lead guitarist Screamer had been summoned against his will from a particularly delightful nap to run the set a few times. The off-key falsettos rip entirely through the soundscape with the yelp of stepping on a particularly edged Lego brick with the hyper-compressed treatment of an Unexpected Cena. The bridge for “Battle of Metal” felt unfinished, like they had all agreed that the bridge should occur at that one point in the song (4:53 in) but forgot to write the rest of it. It chugs and chugs for bars, adding an incredible amount of length to an already ten-minute song. The pièce-de-résistance, however, came at the end of the final track, “Run For Your Life.” The key change that hits in the final moments of the song ends the chaos with the subtlety of a plane crashing into a train wreck. The “woah” that Screamer lets out after a particularly warbled vocal sustain sounds more like a self-realized “woah, that was off” than an intentional punctuation. I was left with my jaw on the floor as the wreck smouldered in the silence after the final notes. What the hell had I just witnessed?
At this point I couldn’t look away. It was the constant flood of seeming disasters that kept me gawking at this resurrected bit of the past. But that’s also what made me come back. I could say almost anything about the release, but the one thing I couldn’t call it was boring. Little in music means certain death more than that dreaded little five-letter word. I kept coming back to witness the wreck again and again, searching for that awe-struck feeling that left me grinning like a maniac and uttering phrases like “incredible,” and “astonishing” under my breath in the way it did the first time I played through it. Yet the more I listened, the more the sands of irony began to wash away. With each subsequent play, the bit of the shattered Trumer Pils bottle glass that I initially mistook Thunderlord for wore down.
The opening riffs of “Secret Power” began to strike like lightning, those deafening falsettos breaking through the sound barrier like a clap of mighty thunder. Screamer’s seemingly distracted vocals became those of a warrior finding the music in the march to war. After all, even having perfect pitch, being on-key for that matter, won’t save one from the wrath of the blade. Repeated listens revealed strength in the ideas of the riffs on songs like “Wings Of Fury.” The muddled gallop began to beat like a violent wind beneath a defiant bird of prey as it flew confidently across the the skies. No longer did the extended chugging in the bridge of “Battle Of Metal” feel long-winded. Instead, it felt like a stampede of warhorses charging across desert plains into the crescendo of guitars. I began to listen more acutely, appreciating the powerhouse of ComteDeBasstard’s bass runs and the ferocity in Screamer and Axecutor’s twin lead work. The production no longer felt limiting, instead the pops and crackles became like cigarette burns on an old film or the frayed edges of an ancient mystical text. The power of Thunderlord’s greatest strength–their songwriting–shone through. Listening became more about its merits than its flaws.
With fascination, I witnessed my change in perspective occurring in real time as I held Thunderlord up to the light once again–now it gleamed like a glorious emerald in the moonlight. This enchanted artifact had absorbed every jaded thought I could force upon it, becoming more and more powerful with the more blood I offered it. And of course, as such gems are wont to do when a blood offering is in play, it initiated a quest. I began digging up any info I could find on the band. In the process noticed that bass player ComteDaBasstard played guitar in an active band along with the Thunderlord cover artist, Poison Poser. I dove into the fun of High Heeler‘s glam-tinged, high-heel worshipping heavy metal (and their website was an absolute treat to poke around through while doing so). While the style differs from Thunderlord’s epic power metal, they do share a similar element: the devil-may-care freedom to have fun and rock. It’s a trait I’ve seen pop up time and again as I work my way through the bands affiliated with the Austrian Heavy Metal Alliance. While the styles all differ – from Roadwolf‘s British Steel-era Priest worshipping anthems to hooky to the AOR-hooks in Liquid Steel‘s brand of power metal to the Cauchemar-meets-Saxon style of Grim Justice to Wildhunt‘s thrashing metal attack – there is a binding element, a shared vision of heavy metal that resonates not only in the Alliance but throughout much of Austria’s crop of New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal bands. All of a sudden I understood my own newfound loves such as Eisenhand and Venator just a little bit more – an unabashed acceptance and devotion to the music. Whatever it is that you’re worshipping, be it Greek gods, fast cars, ancient legends, adventure, late nights, mysticism, high heels, or whatever it is that inspires – do it with your whole heart. Trends be damned, this is true devotion to the steel. Thunderlord weren’t making this music because it was popular or in some long-term scheme of snagging just one more fan twenty-five years into the future, they did it because they loved it. It was reissued because they still love it, because they believed that someone would resonate with the way in which they melded their iron. I can’t speak for anyone else, but at least for me, Thunderlord has the gleam of a gem, that sparkle that invokes the imagination, that desire that wants to believe everything is just a little bigger and a little louder than everything else. It’s the secret power that separates true gems from broken glass…
…and you can’t convince me that Thunderlord is anything less than that.