(Swords & Chains 2017)
Chicago’s Swords & Chains Records may not be the most prolific label in the world, but they have developed a knack for plucking undiscovered gems out of the digital wasteland and giving them a physical release. Case in point, the self-titled debut album from Emblem. The quartet from Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada actually released the album digitally via Bandcamp back in April 2017, but no CD version existed until now. Information about Emblem is hard to come by on the Internet, as they have only a minimal presence on Facebook and no snazzy press releases or promo sheets; therefore, I cannot give you any in-depth background on the band. That’s okay, it’s the music that really matters anyway.
Emblem are very much rooted in the traditional metal style, but they don’t really sound like anyone else, drawing from both the US power metal and the NWOBHM movements. To be sure, there’s a clearly discernable early Maiden bent at work from time to time in the melodies and arrangements, but Maiden are so ubiquitous these days that that’s hardly a surprise. On listening to the album, the first thing you’ll notice are the twin guitars of John Cooper and Drew Knee. The axemen play up a storm, and it seems like every song gives the Cooper/Knee tandem extensive latitude to tear through solos, harmonies and even tremolo-picked riffs with often-lengthy instrumental breaks. The songs are anything but concise (typically hovering around the six-minute mark, with three tracks exceeding 7:00), and don’t really have abundant twists and turns; instead, the vocals simply drop out and let Cooper and Knee milk those harmonies and melodic themes for all they’re worth, without altering the trajectory of the song. The recording job definitely sounds a bit rough around the edges, perhaps more like a good demo than a pro album, but frankly that’s part of Emblem’s charm. Ultimately, my strong suspicion is that opinions on Emblem will hinge on how the listener feels about the vocals of singer/bassist Hawk Emblem. He sports a clear, honest mid-range voice and has a propensity to bump against the limits of his range and technical skills. Your mileage may vary, but to me, Hawk Emblem is giving it his all and brings enough enthusiasm to the table to make me discount those imperfections when they surface.
Because of the extended guitar-oriented instrumental passages in each song, the material on Emblem does kind of run together, despite the often-strong choruses and hooks. But Emblem are a young band, and this issue is quite common for newer acts. It’s one thing to perfect your sound, but it’s quite another to mold that sound into compelling, memorable songs. Emblem have the first part down cold, but maybe haven’t quite accomplished the second yet. To see what I mean, one need only compare the band’s original material to the CD bonus track, a cover version of the NWOBHM classic “We Stand to Fight” by Virtue. The Virtue cover easily stands out as the most immediate track on the album. To be clear, I’m not knocking Emblem. No way. This album is really well done for what it is, and enthusiasts of dual-guitar fueled traditional metal will find a lot to enjoy here in the generous helping of killer riffs and harmonies. Tighten the songwriting, refine the vocals, and Emblem could become a major player in the true metal landscape. As it stands, Emblem is certainly worth an investment as a fine, albeit flawed, album by a talented band on the rise.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~