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 ~