It’s been a pleasure to watch Seven Kingdoms develop as a band over the last nine years. In the early days, they were basically just a bunch of green kids from central Florida who worshipped Iced Earth, Blind Guardian and George R.R. Martin. No doubt, their hearts were in the right place; however, their enthusiasm and their ambition outstripped their abilities back then. But then something interesting happened. With each successive album, Seven Kingdoms took not just a step, but a substantial leap, forward. In terms of songwriting, performances, production, arrangements, artwork, and really everything, the band displayed marked improvement from one record to the next. The result was a steep upward trajectory spanning their first three albums. By the time 2012’s ‘The Fire is Mine’ came out, Seven Kingdoms had metamorphosed into a genuine force to be reckoned with, a top-shelf European-styled power metal band with killer songs, ripping guitars, speedy tempos, and outstanding female lead vocals.
The obvious question is what happens next. In honor of Seven Kingdoms’ tenth anniversary, they will be releasing their fourth full-length album, the appropriately titled ‘Decennium,’ early in 2017. Rather than aligning their fortunes with a traditional record label, the band have elected to go the Kickstarter route this time. Their funding/preorder campaign officially launches on Friday, December 9, 2016, with perks set for delivery in late January or February 2017. Unlike some bands who use crowdfunding to cover costs for as-yet unrecorded albums (with ensuing interminable lags from funding to reward fulfillment), ‘Decennium’ is already in the can. It’s completely finished. Your humble scribe was given advance access to the album tracks a couple of days ago for the purpose of contributing a review to coincide with the Kickstarter launch. Although I was happy to oblige, the compressed timeframe necessarily means that this review should be classified more in the vein of “initial impressions” than a carved-in-stone final say on the matter, simply because there really has not been enough time to live with the tracks, to let them seep under my skin and into my subconscious. That said, I have given ‘Decennium’ enough spins to generate confidence in the impressions described below. So, armed with that mild caveat, here we go …
As many readers undoubtedly know, Seven Kingdoms actually commenced the ‘Decennium’ cycle in September/October 2016 with the release of a four-track teaser EP entitled ‘In the Walls.’ In addition to a pair of exclusive non-album tracks (fine remakes of standout songs from their 2007 ‘Brothers of the Night’ debut), the EP previewed two tunes from ‘Decennium,’ namely “Undying” and “In the Walls.” Both newbies are scorching, high-velocity hammers of the highest order, particularly “In the Walls,” which immediately vaulted to one of my favorite Seven Kingdoms tracks of all time. While the EP had its desired effect of whetting my appetite for ‘Decennium,’ it also made me worry just a bit. What if the rest of the record couldn’t live up to the sheer awesome power of these two EP songs? Worse yet, what if “Undying” and “In the Walls” weren’t representative of ‘Decennium’ and the rest of the disc was bogged down in soggy ballads and midpaced snoozers? When I saw Seven Kingdoms play the Pathfinder Empire Metal Showcase in Atlanta last month, guitarist Camden Cruz reassured me that the band had stuck to their guns and that the album was filled with fast power metal.
Camden was right. Upon becoming acquainted with ‘Decennium’ this week, I can emphatically vouch for the stylistic purity and integrity of Seven Kingdoms. They haven’t watered things down. They haven’t tried to latch onto any trends or write radio-friendly songs. They haven’t slowed down or compromised their artistic vision in any way. ‘Decennium’ is the work of a band that not only embrace what they are, but have doubled down on it with single-minded focus and clarity of purpose. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: ‘Decennium’ is fast. Really fast. It’s got to be the fastest Seven Kingdoms album ever. There are no ballads, and really only two songs (“Castles in the Snow” and lead video track “Neverending”) that I would classify as predominantly midtempo, although even those have flecks of speed interwoven in their fabric. Now, don’t get the wrong idea: All of the songs have dynamics and different parts with shifting tempos inside each of them, so ‘Decennium’ isn’t a nonstop blur of fatiguing, mind-numbing speed. Seven Kingdoms are adept at ratcheting the tempos and mood up and down in the context of any given song as needed. But if you love Seven Kingdoms’ faster moments like “After the Fall” or “Flame of Olympus,” you will find yourself right at home on ‘Decennium.’
To get the objective description out of the way, ‘Decennium’ weighs in at 10 songs and approximately 52 minutes. There are no intro tracks, no instrumentals, no spoken-word narratives (a la “A Debt Paid in Steel” from the last album), just pure undiluted energy from start to finish. Interestingly, the band did not pen a lengthy epic this time (in the vein of “Seven Kingdoms” from the self-titled album or “The King in the North” from ‘The Fire is Mine’). Nearly every song clocks in at between five and six minutes, with none being longer and two being a little shorter. While I’ve enjoyed Seven Kingdoms’ more expansive songs, ‘Decennium’ feels complete without the traditional closing epic. The band once again worked with Jim Morris and Morrisound in the recording process (along with Phil Pluskota and North Avenue Studios), with mastering by Jacob Hansen, so listeners should expect a powerful, top-notch sound conveying both majesty and grandeur. I can’t tell for sure from these mp3s, but damn, ‘Decennium’ sounds huge. Every instrument is clearly audible in the mix (there a few spots where even Aaron Sluss’s monster bass lines reach out and smack the listener in the head), the guitars slice and dice with razor-sharp alacrity, and there’s plenty of ear candy for the discerning listener. Hell, I could spend a paragraph gushing about the choirs alone. They are simply masterful in execution, but that’s long been a Jim Morris hallmark and a strong suit of Seven Kingdoms. They may have outdone themselves in the choir department this time. Overall, the production on ‘Decennium’ is high-caliber, clean, and polished, just as one would expect. It complements Seven Kingdoms’ music perfectly.
There is nothing on ‘Decennium’ that I would term a “curveball” or a big musical experiment. At this point, Seven Kingdoms have settled on their sound and they’re sticking to it. They’re doing what they’ve always done, only better. So rather than overhauling their style, Seven Kingdoms have simply tinkered with it around the margins, honing the final product to a gleaming sharp edge. For example, the twin-guitar melody to “Stargazer” sounds a bit like classic Kai Hansen or Piet Sielck, which is a bit different for Seven Kingdoms. Likewise, the arrangement in a couple of verses of that same song where the guitars drop out and Sabrina Cruz sings over pounding drums and a shimmery guitar effect is not something they’ve tried before. So it is certainly true that Seven Kingdoms have incorporated a few new elements and tried some things to freshen up the melodies and arrangements, but there’s nothing drastic. Also, in the past, the band have been subject to the not-unfair criticism that some parts blatantly “borrow” from the likes of Blind Guardian, Iced Earth or Dragonforce. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. My feeling is if you’re going to borrow, then borrow from the best. But I’ll admit that when I listen to past Seven Kingdoms albums, there are a few moments where I chuckle because the resemblance to their influences is just a bit too close. I don’t get that same impression from ‘Decennium.’ Oh, I have no doubt that the band’s primary influences are unchanged, but they’re slightly better disguised this time. That said, there is a lick in “The Tale of Deathface Ginny” that is pure, unadulterated Andre Olbrich (Blind Guardian lead guitarist), and I love the band for doing it. There ought to be a law requiring every Seven Kingdoms album to contain at least one part like that in homage to the master. But here (unlike in the past) it doesn’t crop up time and time again in multiple songs to become a distraction.
A sure sign of a great album is when the listener falls for a different favorite song on each pass through. Such is the case with ‘Decennium.’ I’ve probably picked out a half dozen tunes that I would classify as “my favorite” on the disc at various times. When the dust settles, the teaser EP title cut, “In the Walls,” will no doubt be viewed as a standout cut on the album, with its hyperspeed attack, terrific vocal performance from Sabrina Cruz (just listen to how she delivers the line “these bastards, they will not let me sleep”) and haunting lyrics derived from an H.P. Lovecraft short story. Track 9, “Hollow,” also seems destined to be enshrined in Seven Kingdoms immortality. It’s a sub-5:00 speed workout, the most relentlessly fast tune on the record, boasting a chorus to die for (key lyric: “It’s just a game you see / In the end you mean nothing to me”) and a ridiculously awesome choir part leading into and accompanying the final chorus. It’s just jaw-droppingly good. Elsewhere, “Kingslayer,” “Awakened from Nothing,” “Stargazer” and “The Faceless Hero” are all very special songs incorporating all the elements that make Seven Kingdoms great. There is no filler, not a single song I would dream of skipping.
Like many of you, I harbored many questions before hearing ‘Decennium’ in its entirety. Now, I fully understand the answers that I seek are beyond my wildest dreams. In time, you may come to the same realization. For now, let it suffice to say that Seven Kingdoms have cemented their legacy as America’s premier power metal band with an album featuring all their trademarks, only executed a higher level than ever before. If you buy only one traditional power metal album in 2017, there is a compelling argument to be made that it should be ‘Decennium.’ And for heaven’s sake go see Seven Kingdoms live if they come anywhere near you. The band have promised an extensive and ambitious slate of touring in support of this record, beginning with a spring jaunt supporting Evergrey in the USA.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~