I first became aware of Blackgate in late 2014 when a friend recommended their debut six-song EP, an impressive exercise in U.S. power/thrash metal that skillfully recalled the genre masters while adding a contemporary edge that prevented them from sounding dated or derivative. In the interim, there have been some lineup changes (including the addition of Jeff Kollnot, brother of True Metal Lives colleague Jonathan Kollnot, on guitar), but the quintet from Grand Rapids, Michigan, has just completed their first full-length album, a 14-track, 65-minute affair entitled Ronin. They held a record release party in their hometown on July 9, 2016, which is about the same time a copy of Ronin found its way to my desk.
Ronin feels very much like the logical successor to the EP; indeed, most of the EP tracks (save one, if I'm not mistaken) appear on the album too, a wise move given the strength of cuts like 'Caesar' and 'You Better Run' and the likelihood that many metalheads might have missed out on hearing the EP. To that fine core of songs, Blackgate have added a fistful of new tracks cut from the same cloth as their predecessors. So seamless is the transition that, with EP and new songs interspersed in the running order, it is impossible to tell by listening which are the newer tunes and which are older. For the uninitiated, Blackgate's sound is perhaps most directly comparable to the Iced Earth family of bands, albeit with an overall thrashier, more aggressive riffing structure and lacking some of the sweeping dynamics of Jon Schaffer's outfit. That said, classic metal elements certainly crop up from time to time on Ronin. Just listen to the catchy Maiden/Priest inspired guitar melodies on songs like 'Dying Age' and 'Last Son' to see what I mean. By contrast, Blackgate can get downright brutal at times, such as in parts of 'Iron Legion' where the drums flirt with blastbeat territory and David Cuffman's gruff-but-tuneful vocals toughen up to the point of harshness. Yet even 'Iron Legion' has compelling melodic flourishes, fluid twin lead guitars courtesy of Matt Cremeans and Jeff Kollnot, a bass solo from Tim Luce, and a stadium-friendly 'woahh-ohhh' singalong bit at the end. So there's a fair amount of diversity and ample melody embedded in the tracks, even though Blackgate focuses on attack mode most of the time with their crushing, intense riffs and speedy tempos. Another cool feature of 'Ronin' is that most of the songs bleed into each other, with no dead space between them, which simply adds to the relentless intensity of the listening experience.
While I enjoy 'Ronin' very much, there are a few areas for improvement. The packaging of the physical CD-R leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, the cover artwork (front and back) is fantastic, but there is no booklet, no liner notes, and just three lines of barebones credits. Not even the musicians are identified. I know booklet design and printing are not cheap but by skimping in these areas, Blackgate are making it harder for fans who care enough to invest in physical product. Also, the sonics are noticeably uneven in places (not wholly unexpected for an unsigned, self-financed band), and the 65-minute running time is perhaps excessive for this kind of ripping metal assault, as listener fatigue may be inevitable. All of that said, there's no doubt in my mind that Blackgate have put their best foot forward here. 'Ronin' is the work of a talented band poised to break out of the local Grand Rapids scene and do some damage in the metal world at large. I'd be stunned if 'Ronin' does not garner Blackgate some significant interest from record labels and promoters, both domestically and abroad. It will certainly be getting substantial airplay in my house in the weeks and months to come.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~