A few years ago, the future seemed bleak indeed for Colorado metal heroes Jag Panzer. Following the release of 2011’s sadly underrated The Scourge of the Light album, lead guitarist Christian Lasegue left the Panzer fold, vocalist extraordinaire Harry “The Tyrant” Conklin appeared to have drifted off to focus on Satan’s Host, and it seemed the final chapter of one of America’s greatest bands might have already been written. But founding guitarist Mark Briody, founding bassist John Tetley and longtime drummer Rikard Stjernquist persevered. More importantly, they did it for the right reasons. I recall that, in social media posts at the time, Briody explained that Jag Panzer would continue because he had written some songs that he wanted the world to hear. Simple as that. Before long, JP’s luck changed. The band repaired their relationship with estranged hotshot guitarist Joey Tafolla, whose Panzer roots run back as far as 1984’s masterpiece, Ample Destruction. Bam, lead guitar position filled, without the disruption and tedium of having to find and break in a new player. Somehow, the freakishly talented Conklin made his way back home. And slowly, patiently, meticulously, Jag Panzer worked on studio album #11 (or #10, I guess, depending on whether you count the remakes album – I would). Now, finally, the enigmatically titled The Deviant Chord is due on September 29, 2017 via SPV Records.
Upon studying the attractive digipak and accompanying booklet, three observations leap to mind immediately. First, for the first time in ages (not counting the Decade of the Nail-Spiked Bat re-recordings in 2003), producer Jim Morris and Morrisound Studios in Tampa are not credited; instead, John Herrera produced, mixed and mastered the album. Any apprehension about the producer switch would be misplaced. At this stage of the game, Jag Panzer sounds like Jag Panzer, and while there are discernable sonic differences in The Deviant Chord, they are not drastic (most notably, perhaps, the choirs are a bit different), and the band’s standards of quality on the production side remain fully intact and uncompromised. Second, Jag Panzer appear to have devoted more time and energy to the visual presentation of The Deviant Chord than ever before. The cover artwork, painted by the extraordinary fantasy artist Dusan Markovic, is striking and inspired, with clever details interspersed throughout for those with the patience and insight to look. What’s more, the booklet carries out the mad scientist motif brilliantly, in terms of the band member photos (I won’t spoil the surprise, you need to see them yourself), the font in which the song titles are written, and even the mathematical equations. The packaging is a treasure trove of clever details, hidden meanings and “easter eggs,” many of which may elude the gaze of all but the most ardent and informed observer. Don’t know about you, but I love it when bands do that kind of stuff. Third, rather than crediting particular songs to particular writers, all nine original tunes (there’s also a traditional song) are credited to all five band members. It’s a telling statement. You see, The Deviant Chord isn’t about who wrote what, it’s about the collective power and grace of Jag F’ing Panzer. And that’s a beautiful thing.
But what does The Deviant Chord sound like? Simple: It’s the Jag Panzer you know and love, through and through. The various elements of the band’s trademark, time-honored sound and style are all present here, executed an extremely high level. Perhaps the most exciting revelation is this: The band’s focus on older material in their recent live sets, as well as their reuniting with Tafolla (an important link to those revered 1980s songs), appears to have had a salutary impact on the direction of the album. By that I mean The Deviant Chord hits harder, faster, and with more intensity than any JP album in recent memory. Thundering, quick-hitting tracks like “Born of the Flame,” “Fire of our Spirit,” “Salacious Behavior” and first single “Far Beyond All Fear” positively crackle with old-school energy, rapid tempos and massive guitar riffs and melodies. Before you jump to conclusions, no, I’m not saying this album sounds like Ample Destruction. But those old-school, in-your-face, pummeling moments where the Panzer cuts loose and rocks out are both ample and destructive here. And they’re incredibly convincing. In many respects, The Deviant Chord is a headbanging feast. If, however, you’re more of a fan of Jag Panzer’s more elegant, sophisticated material exemplified by their Chris Broderick days, no worries. Those elements are here too. Majestic tracks like “Dare,” “Blacklist” and “Divine Intervention” follow in the footsteps of the likes of “Iron Eagle” and “King at a Price,” albeit with perhaps an extra spring in their step. If you yearn for the more intricate, layered (dare I say symphonic or progressive, without the pejorative baggage those terms carry in the true metal realm) face of Jag Panzer, they’ve also taken care of you via the dark and haunting title track “The Deviant Chord,” as well as the six-minute subdued “Long Awaited Kiss” (no, it’s not about a romantic tryst, but instead describes an old man welcoming the kiss of death at the conclusion of a life well lived). And then there’s “Foggy Dew.” Yes, the traditional Irish ballad telling the story of the Easter Uprising of 1916. Yes, it’s been covered a million times before and yes, you probably know it. But you’ve never heard it like this. For deeply personal and frankly heartwarming reasons, Briody wanted to cover it on this album, with an astonishing heavy metal arrangement that simply oozes class and metallic glory. Against all odds, Jag Panzer’s version of “Foggy Dew” stands out even in album littered with highlights. Hope this one finds its way into the live set, along with three-quarters of the record, honestly.
Okay, now it’s time for the superlatives, the moment when the “journalist” (in the words of Wayne Campbell, “As if!!!”) hat comes off and fanboy hat goes on. Buckle up. The Deviant Chord is nothing short of a triumph, a gift for both longtime Jag Panzer fans and devotees of well-crafted traditional heavy metal in general. Improbably, this late in the game, this record ranks among the finest output in Jag Panzer’s illustrious career. There are no remotely mediocre songs or apathetic performances in the 44:44 running time. Harry the Tyrant belts out his vocals with unparalleled conviction, power, emotion and versatility, from a gentle whisper to a heart-rending scream. It may be true that none of us are impervious to the relentless ravages of time, but I’m telling you The Tyrant hasn’t lost a step, folks. Joey Tafolla’s leads have that perfect combination of virtuosic flash and song-serving restraint. Despite showcasing his talents as a monster player, Tafolla remains tastefully cognizant of the song and never overplays anything. As far as the songs, this consistent, cohesive and yet dynamic batch of tunes moves effortlessly from strength to strength. Everything that made you fall in love with Jag Panzer in the first place, you will find here, along with plenty of heart, inspiration and class. The Deviant Chord is a special album by a special band. Don’t miss it.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~