GRAVESHADOW Ambition’s Price
Like many True Metal Lives readers, I suspect, my musical tastes hover in a pretty narrow range, rarely crossing beyond the cozy confines of the old-school and the traditional. It’s not that I’m intolerant, it’s just that I know what I like. Occasionally, however, I’ll stumble across something outside my comfort zone that catches my ear and captures my fancy. Such is the case for California’s Graveshadow, whose sound is something of a melting pot with elements of power metal, symphonic metal, gothic metal, and even bits of extreme metal and traditional metal too. The intriguing sonic package is bound together by the alternately beguiling and bewitching vocals of Heather Michele (ex-Helion Prime), who careens from a confident rock swagger to a vicious rasp like the deathly breath of Hecate herself at the drop of a hat. Left to my own devices, it’s honestly not the sort of thing I would ever check out. You know, comfort zones and all that. But last spring, I was on the road with Night Demon for a handful of shows on their US tour with Anvil, and Graveshadow were also on the bill. Night after night, Graveshadow won me over with their energetic performances and catchy songs like “Lycan Lust” and “Blood and Fire.” That said, I found their 2015 debut album, Nocturnal Resurrection, not to fully capture the power and intensity of Graveshadow’s live attack, too often getting bogged down in a murky sound and overbearing (for my taste, at least) keyboards.
Now signed to Marco Barbieri’s M-Theory label, Graveshadow have just released their second album, Ambition’s Price, an altogether more professional, polished and accomplished album than its predecessor. From the packaging itself, Ambition’s Price reveals a band ready to up its game and play for keeps. The striking cover painting from the marvelous Dusan Markovic perfectly captures the dark vibe and haunting spirit of the album, the band photography in the booklet uses light and shadow quite effectively, and there’s even a cool handwriting font for song titles and band members’ names. The same level of attentiveness, care and professionalism carries over to the music, as well. The songwriting is compelling from top to bottom, as Graveshadow have come up with an excellent batch of memorable tunes devoid of self-indulgent fluff or filler. Tracks like the awesome “Warchief,” “Widow and the Raven,” and “Hero of Time” are pure earworms that will embed their way into your brain from the first time you hear them. (Interesting side note: Graveshadow do not have a main songwriter, as Ambition’s Price features distinct songwriting contributions from each member, with a patchwork of disparate writing credits for each song like a recent Iron Maiden album, yet the whole thing hangs together beautifully.) Lead guitarist Aaron Robitsch, making his recording debut with Graveshadow on this album, did a superb job writing orchestrations that embellish, color and accent the songs without overwhelming them. And Heather Michele again impresses with a top-shelf performance that displays remarkable versatility, range and expressiveness at all points on the beauty/beast spectrum. Not to be overlooked in the plaudits is the studio wizardry of Night Demon guitarist Armand John Anthony, who expertly produced and mixed the album in a manner that enables Graveshadow to shine their brightest and showcase their strengths in a clean, powerful, uncluttered fashion. (Fun fact: the idea for Armand’s collaboration with Graveshadow on this record was actually hatched in my living room on a night off from the tour when both bands were crashing at my place. Not that I’m taking credit or anything: I just provided a couch, a boombox, and a hell of a lot of beer.)
I’m never going to be a gothic guy or a death-vocals guy, but none of that really matters when it comes to Ambition’s Price. Graveshadow have effectively cut across all those constraining subgenres and delivered an immensely listenable, enjoyable, rewarding album that may find favor with a wide variety of metalheads. Even if you’re a narrow-minded bastard like me, give Ambition’s Price a chance. Against all odds, I’ve been enjoying the hell out of this album. Give Ambition’s Price a chance, and you just might find yourself falling under Graveshadow’s enchanting spell, as well.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
THRUST Harvest of Souls
(Pure Steel 2018)
Thrust needs little introduction. After all, the band made an indelible mark in the heavy metal underground back in 1984 with their Metal Blade debut album, Fist Held High, which is rightfully regarded as a minor classic of raw, uncompromising, fist-to-the-face Chicago heavy metal. Songs like the title track, “Metallic Attack,” and “Posers Will Die” are revered in the hearts of many as evergreen, essential ‘80s metal anthems. Only guitarist Ron Cooke remains from that era of the band; however, he moved to Los Angeles, where he has been playing for many years under the Thrust banner with a stable lineup consisting of Joe Rezendes (drums), Ray Gervais (bass), and Angel Rodriguez (guitars). A couple of years ago, vocalist Eric Claro joined the fold, and the fellowship was complete. This iteration of Thrust has become a mainstay on the underground festival circuit, thrilling old fans, converting new ones, and striking fear in the hearts of posers everywhere from Keep It True to Up the Hammers to Frost and Fire and Spring Bash. It was only natural that the topic of new material would bubble to the surface eventually, and now Thrust proudly unveil Harvest of Souls, due for worldwide release on Germany’s Pure Steel Records on April 27, 2018.
In terms of style, Harvest of Souls remains very much true to the original Fist Held High aesthetic. What does that mean? Thrust’s calling card, their claim to fame, was that their music represented traditional metal at its absolute heaviest. Not thrash metal, not death metal, but old-school midpaced metal delivered heavier, heavier than hell (to quote a song from Fist Held High). Back in the day, we used to compare Thrust to a slowed-down, more precise Exciter. Thankfully, all of this still holds true on Harvest of Souls. The first thing that stands out from the time you push play and “Deceiver” kicks in are those monolithic, skull-crushing Cooke/Rodriguez riffs, with a deliciously raw and suitably vicious guitar tone calculated to tear your head clean off. Those riffs meld brilliantly with Gervais’ leaden bass lines (featured prominently in the mix for maximum impact and maximum heaviness) and Rezendes’ pounding hooves to create this lumbering, juddering, lurching beast of metal laying waste to everything in its path. The album’s production is appropriately clear and powerful, allowing each instrument to shine and pummeling the listener in a way that many tin-eared old-school albums these days do not. No punches are pulled, folks. Harvest of Souls is like a bruising heavyweight boxer in a prize fight. It’s here to do damage, and it comes out swinging from the opening bell until the inevitable TKO. Over the top of it all, vocalist Claro’s gritty delivery suits the music well, but exudes just enough melody and personality to set the hooks, reel the listener in and prevent the songs from devolving into a faceless slugfest.
Pre-release singles “Sorceress” (for which a video has also been released) and “Feel the Pain” will be familiar to many Thrust fans because they’ve been featured in the live set for some time. Not coincidentally, they are also two of the more immediately catchy and melodic songs on the album, without sacrificing an ounce of Thrust’s signature heaviness. “Sorceress,” in particular, is one of Thrust’s best tracks ever, just an absolute hammer of a song. Other highlights include opener “Deceiver” and closer “One Step from the Grave,” both of which feature bludgeoning riffs and gang-shouted choruses tailor-made for the live arena. I’ve also grown quite fond of “Kill or Be Killed,” which starts with a rumbling Gervais bass intro then rides a Rezendes stomping drum pattern, an impressive soaring vocal from Claro, and a fist-pounding refrain to the heavy metal promised land. Overall, the material is quite consistent throughout. Thrust are seasoned veterans. They know where their strengths lie, and they stick to what they do best, without any surprises or experiments, unless you count the haunting atmospheric intro to “Shadow of the Cross” (reminiscent of something Grave Digger might do) before yet another scorching riff in the Exciter mold pegs the heaviness factor back to the redline.
If there’s a quibble to be had with Harvest of Souls, it’s that Thrust maybe are a bit too one-dimensional in their mode of attack, with little variation in tempos and song structures throughout the 10-song, 44-minute playing time. At the same time, however, that weakness can also be viewed as a strength because it reveals a purity of heart, a singlemindedness of purpose, and a clarity of focus. Thrust know exactly what they’re doing on Harvest of Souls. Old-school metalheads take note: Thrust are back. With their fists held high, they can take command. And the forecast isn’t looking too rosy for the posers.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
JUDICATOR The Last Emperor
Don’t look now, but power metal seems to be enjoying a bit of a creative resurgence in the underground of late. Oh, I know it never really went away, but if we’re honest, it did become depressingly stale and stagnant for a time. In recent months, however, I’ve written reviews spotlighting a pair of young German bands, Evertale and Don’t Drop the Sword, each of whom deliver a fresh and exciting take on the revered early Blind Guardian sound. That phenomenon is not confined to the other side of the pond either. Witness The Last Emperor, the new album from Arizona/Utah-based Judicator. To be sure, Judicator are no newbies to the power metal sweepstakes. On the contrary, The Last Emperor is their fourth album in the last six years. All have been of high quality, and some observers have labeled Judicator (along with Seven Kingdoms) the best, greatest hope for power metal in the USA. But, to my ears at least, Judicator have stepped up their game during the three-year gap preceding The Last Emperor’s release. From a production standpoint, Judicator have never sounded better than they do here. Plus, this album showcases a purer, more refined iteration of the band. Certain elements (occasional dirty vocals, self-indulgent progressive tendencies) that distracted from previous releases have been pared back or jettisoned altogether this time around, leaving Judicator’s core sound in its most concentrated, streamlined form.
What is that core sound? Well, you won’t get far describing Judicator’s music without mentioning the bards from Krefeld, so let’s go ahead and get that out of the way. The comparison should come as no surprise given that Judicator’s principals, vocalist John Yelland and guitarist Tony Cordisco, famously met at a Blind Guardian concert. Yelland’s voice bears more than a twinge of Hansi Kursch’s timbre and character, so much so that some reviewers have indicated they scarcely noticed Kursch’s guest appearance on the track “Spiritual Treason,” the most BG-esque number on display. Yelland is certainly not a Hansi clone on the order of Jens Carlsson (Persuader/Savage Circus), but the resemblance is unmistakable. The formative Blind Guardian influence also shines through in the album’s heavy reliance on layered choir vocals, the dynamics of the music (the nine-minute “The Queen of All Cities” takes the listener on a winding journey through ancient realms far off in the distance), and the superb riffs. Let’s pause there, because to me the guitars are the most important and appealing element of Judicator’s sound.
When I go back and listen to Battalions of Fear or Follow the Blind, or Helloween’s mini-LP or Walls of Jericho, or Not Fragile’s Hard to Be Alive, or some of my other embryonic German power metal favorites, I am blown away by how aggressive and intense the rhythm guitar playing was. Cordisco and Judicator have taken this lesson to heart. Much of the riffing on The Last Emperor is blindingly fast and heavy, steeped in the thrash tradition of bands like Paradox, Artillery, Heathen and Agent Steel, yet without forsaking melody. And it’s glorious, a riff maven’s paradise. So even though this record is properly classified as power metal, eradicate all thoughts of flowers and puppy dogs and tra-la-la (although, in the spirit of full disclosure, “Take Up Your Cross,” “The Queen of All Cities” and “Antioch” all quite literally have “la-la-la” interludes guaranteed to elicit a hearty scowl of disapproval from crusty old-schoolers like me). The Last Emperor has a delightful, ripping, old-school, thrashy edge running through it, with songs like the jaw-dropping “Raining Gold” (a gold-plated song-of-the-year candidate that is right in my wheelhouse), the aforementioned “Spiritual Treason” and the galloping “It Falls to Jerusalem” perfecting the balance of triumphant melody, attacking energy, and pulverizing speed innovated by the likes of Andre Olbrich and Kai Hansen so many years ago but so often forgotten today by both younger bands and the pioneers themselves. The Last Emperor is worth its weight in gold for the riffs alone, not even counting the intricate vocal melodies, choir arrangements, and killer songwriting.
A couple other aspects of this album deserve attention. Lyrically, Judicator have rightfully cultivated a reputation of exploring historical topics on past albums, from Napoleon Bonaparte on the King of Rome debut to Frederick the Great of Prussia on Sleepy Plessow. (Album #3, At the Expense of Humanity, is an anomaly with its deeply personal lyrical theme.) That tradition is carried forward here, with Yelland tackling a Crusades theme. Also, as a special bonus, Judicator have wisely re-recorded perhaps their best-known song to date, “King of Rome,” for inclusion on The Last Emperor. The magnificent “King of Rome” showcases Judicator at their absolute catchiest, and goes down a storm in the live setting with its tailor-made audience singalong (as I learned firsthand when I saw the band at the DeLand Rock & Metal Festival in November 2014). Its inclusion here may not be essential for those who own the debut album, but it is welcomed nonetheless because of the infinitely more powerful, professional sound achieved on the re-recording. The sonic facelift makes this great song shine even brighter.
When the final ballots are tallied, it’s a clear call that this album is Judicator’s finest effort in a discography teeming with outstanding albums. Is it too early to pronounce The Last Emperor the power metal album of 2018? Maybe so. But for the kind of power metal to which I gravitate – you know, the guitar-centric, fast, thrashy, ballsy kind – it’s almost inconceivable that anyone could top Judicator this year. This one’s mandatory, folks. Here’s hoping more live performances are in the offing, as these songs would really come to life onstage.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
OLD WOLF Faustian Mass
This one came out a couple months ago; however, I fear it might have escaped the gaze of even ardent metalheads still nursing their Christmas/New Year’s Day hangover bangovers. To my ears, this album is one of most exciting new releases of the first quarter of 2018, so I’m doubling back to shine a light on it. The name Old Wolf may not ring a bell, but that’s understandable, as they’ve kept a pretty low profile thus far. Based in Somerset, Kentucky of all places (home state to the mighty Savage Master!), Old Wolf released a superb 3-song demo in late 2015. A year later, the good folks at Divebomb Records did the world a favor by including the entire demo on its Masters of Metal: Vol. 1 compilation CD (which also featured demos from Riot City, Crypt Sermon and Hellrazor). Somehow, Old Wolf was temporarily derailed in 2016 / early 2017 by what they described on their Facebook page as an “agonizingly long hiatus,” but they successfully rallied and regrouped in the first half of last year. At that time, the band recorded their full-length debut album, Faustian Mass, which finally saw the light of day in CD format via Divebomb Records in early January 2018.
Make no bones about it: Old Wolf are waving the flag proudly for classic, old-school heavy metal. They describe their influences as including the whole NWOBHM movement, as well as the usual suspects like Sabbath, Priest and Thin Lizzy. Old Wolf distill these fairly run-of-the-mine ingredients into something special. The twin guitars of Jake Wilson and Jerome Peters are nothing short of spellbinding, showcasing a remarkable sense of melody and exquisite harmony of the Maiden / Thin Lizzy variety. Moreover, Old Wolf are blessed with an outstanding vocalist in the form of Ric Langford, whose mid-range, unpolished voice isn’t really similar to anyone else’s. There’s an emotional quality to the vocals, as Langford strains to reach for those powerful high notes. It works really well. Songwriting is compact and straightforward, with most of the songs hovering around the four-minute mark. A notable exception is the seven-minute closer “Howl,” where Old Wolf indulge an extended instrumental break in the middle section and the Wilson/Peters combo truly shines. Speed mavens be forewarned: Old Wolf do not step on the accelerator. Rather, Faustian Mass is perpetually locked into a comfortable midtempo, riding those timeless riffs as the rhythm section rumbles and lumbers menacingly beneath. There are no gimmicks, fancy tricks or whiz-bang bells and whistles at work here, just a five-piece band rocking out, playing old-fashioned, unpretentious, blue-collar heavy metal from the heart. That’s good enough for me. The material is uniformly strong, but I’m especially partial to “Your Keeper,” which was my favorite song from the demo and unsurprisingly enough is my favorite here as well. That said, new cuts like the superb “Executioner’s Hymn,” “Faustian Mass” and the aforementioned “Howl” absolutely hold up their end of the bargain and earn their keep(er).
If you need a benchmark comparison for Old Wolf, I might say they sound like Argus without the doom elements, or High Spirits without the fast happy parts. The label also says Faustian Mass is recommended for fans of bands like Grand Magus, Eternal Champion, and Visigoth, and I can see that as well, although there are significant differences between Old Wolf and each of those acts. The simplest way to put it is like this: Those who appreciate and enjoy the new wave of traditional heavy metal (and particularly the American variant) really owe it to themselves to check out Faustian Mass. It’s right up your alley. I only have a couple of nits. First, all three demo songs are included on the album, which means both that my ears naturally gravitate to those tracks because I already love them and that there are only five proper new songs (as well as a spoken-word intro and a short instrumental). Second, there are some fairly prominent atmospheric synth parts in a few places. For my personal tastes, the tunes would be stronger and more potent without them, but that’s just my anti-keyboard bias rearing its ugly head. None of that detracts from the main conclusion, which is that Old Wolf kick ass and Faustian Mass is a great example of old-school heavy metal done right. They’re on the prowl, hear them howl!
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
TOMORROW’S OUTLOOK A Voice Unheard
Sorvik, population 451, is a tiny village in northern Norway. It’s hard to imagine a less likely origin for a metal band. But maybe not. The Wikipedia entry for the village reflects that Sorvik is known locally as a “metal-community” and boasts that several well-known bands have roots there. This brings us to Tomorrow’s Outlook, a Sorvik-based band with big aspirations and big talent. As the band readily admits, their 2012 debut album, entitled 34613, may have been too ambitious for its own good. But it was an enjoyable melodic metal effort inspired by the likes of ‘80s Crimson Glory, Lethal and Dio and featuring guest vocal appearances from such luminaries as Graham Bonnet and Michael Kiske. After six long years, the follow-up, entitled A Voice Unheard, is complete and poised for worldwide release via Australia’s Battlegod Productions on April 6, 2018.
From the outset, you should know that Tomorrow’s Outlook have an unconventional configuration. The three members/writers include bassist Anders Stenseth, guitarist Oystein Kvile Hanssen, and manager/co-writer Trond Nicolaisen. A session player handles the drum parts, and the lead vocals are parceled out on a song-by-song basis among a trio of special guests. The big name here is legendary Primal Fear wailer Ralf Scheepers, who magnificently belts out six songs on A Voice Unheard. Five tracks are performed by Tomorrow’s Outlook’s countryman, the excellent Tony Johannessen (of the band Thunderbolt) who brings a Dickinsonian flair to the proceedings. The third singer, American Scott Oliva (known most recently for his work in Reverence), the lone vocal holdover from 34613, lends his pipes to the superb cut “Outlaw.” For this kind of arrangement to succeed, the guest singers have to be engaged with the song material and not just going through the motions to collect a check. Fortunately, all three vocalists appear to have gone “all in” on this project, with Scheepers especially delivering a glorious, other-worldly performance every bit as intense and inspired as anything you’ve ever heard him do before. For example, I get shivers down my spine when I hear him sing the semi-ballad “The Enemy,” utilizing every facet of his exceptional range, emotion, expression and power.
What is most impressive about A Voice Unheard is not the roster of guests (which also includes Roy Z, who mixed the album, and Heir Apparent’s Terry Gorle, among others), but the quality of the compositions. Whereas the songwriting on 34613 became bogged down at times, A Voice Unheard moves effortlessly from strength to strength, one well-constructed, memorable melodic metal song after another. The songs crackle with energy, Hanssen’s delightfully up-front guitars have plenty of bite and gallop and melody, and the tunes successfully find that sweet spot between classy European traditional power metal and ‘80s U.S. heavy metal. Those who follow my reviews know I typically highlight a few standout songs, but try as I might I simply can’t do it here. The material is so compelling from front to back that if I started name-checking particular tunes that I love, I’d have a list of seven or eight songs in the blink of an eye. It also bears noting that there’s a lyrical concept threading its way through the album. Promotional materials tout A Voice Unheard as being steeped in “a dark concept about an oncoming apocalypse and a solitary soul on a doomed mission to prevent it.” Tomorrow’s Outlook even employ two skilled voice actors to add narration / voice-over bits to advance the storyline. There’s a lot to digest here, and in the few days I’ve been listening to this album I haven’t yet delved fully into the lyrical concept, but it appears to be presented in a way that is interesting without being overbearing or distracting from the killer music. That’s the right balance to strike, because the lyrical concept is there for those who dig it, without getting in the way for listeners who just want to rock.
After 10 songs and nearly an hour of original music, A Voice Unheard shifts gear into covers mode for the final two tracks. And what glorious covers they are! First up is “Darkside of Aquarius,” one of my favorite songs from Bruce Dickinson’s classic Accident of Birth album. Johannessen has big shoes to fill here, standing in for the Air Raid Siren himself, but he acquits himself well and does justice to this great song. More bands should cover Dickinson solo material, dammit! Things get even more exciting with the second cover, which sees Tomorrow’s Outlook tackling a song by Aria, Russia’s biggest and best heavy metal band. They arranged for an English-language translation of “Slave to Evil Force,” the lead track on Aria’s godly Hero of the Asphalt LP from 1987. The kicker is that Aria drummer Maxim Udalov performs on this version, and both Udalov and Aria bassist Vitaly Dubinin lend their talents to the “Darkside of Aquarius” cover. Wow! Tomorrow’s Outlook have told me they have high hopes for future Aria-related collaborations. Fingers crossed that these grand ideas come to fruition. The western world needs more Aria!
With A Voice Unheard, the little unconventional band from Sorvik “Rock City,” Norway just might make serious waves in the international heavy metal community. It fulfills the promise and the glimmers of brilliance exhibited on 34613. It’s a remarkably well-written, well-executed slab of melodic heavy metal that should appeal equally to both the Euro power metal crowd and the ‘80s melodic metal fanbase. To be sure, with its running time of 72 minutes, A Voice Unheard is a demanding listen. Perhaps the best compliment that can be given is that the album doesn’t feel anywhere near that long. Keep your eyes peeled too, because the best may be yet to come. Tomorrow’s Outlook have already completed 70% of the writing process for their third album, with a fiendishly dark and bloody lyrical concept to boot, and have plans to construct a live lineup to enable the band to hit the road and bring their music to the people. I can’t wait.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
True Metal Lives
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