(Nuclear Blast 2016)
As a matter of policy, I try to confine my reviews on True Metal Lives to underground, lower-profile acts. The reason is not that I’m too trve or kvlt to pay attention to more mainstream metal releases on labels like Nuclear Blast, SPV or AFM; to the contrary, I purchase, listen to and love a significant fraction of those albums. It’s just that I see our mission here at TML as being to shine a light on deserving, lesser-known bands that lack the marketing muscle or household name recognition enjoyed by many bigger bands. That said, I do make exceptions from time to time, such as for this new Rage album, ‘The Devil Strikes Again.’ The long-running, prolific German stalwarts are one of my favorite bands of all time. I was chomping at the bit to hear what Peavy Wagner & Company came up with on this, the first proper Rage album in four years and the dawn of the post-Victor Smolski era, so I thought I’d scribble down some observations and reflections after a few spins.
It’s no secret that the last years of the Smolski incarnation of Rage were creatively frustrating for band founder/mastermind Peavy Wagner. Having taken over the bulk of the songwriting duties, Smolski had steered Rage off course, far away from its roots and into more modern/technical/unconventional realms that, while still competent and ambitious and often enjoyable, seemed too detached from the traditional German metal qualities that made Rage one of the greatest bands in the world in the first place. So when Peavy took drastic measures to wrest back control of the good ship Rage last year, he promised an album that respected and paid tribute to the band’s history, with a particular focus on revisiting the sound and spirit of mid-90s classic albums like ‘Black in Mind’ and ‘End of All Days.’ And that’s exactly what he’s delivered. As Peavy himself triumphantly declares in the liner notes, “The rawness, the thrashy riffing and the killer choruses are back!” Yes, they are.
To my way of thinking, the true strength, genius and (yes) magic of Rage at their best lay in Peavy Wagner’s uncanny ability to solder stouthearted (often speedy and punishingly heavy) German metal riffs to melodic, uplifting vocal lines and massive hooks. That fundamental attribute had been somewhat obscured in the Smolski compositions, with layers of complexity and experimental arrangements too often cluttering the tracks and diluting Rage’s attack. On ‘The Devil Strikes Again,’ Peavy and his new partners, guitarist Marcos Rodriguez and drummer Lucky Maniatopoulos, have consciously aimed to strip away the Smolski excess. The riffs are menacing and attacking, but straightforward and memorable even as they reach out for your jugular vein. Vocally, Peavy sounds rejuvenated. You can hear how fired up the man is as he pours his heart into the vocal lines with the perfect blend of gruffness and melody. The songwriting, a collaborative effort between Rodriguez and Peavy, is uniformly impressive. Of the 13 original tracks (10 on the standard album, 3 more on a bonus disc packaged with a deluxe edition), each and every one is worthy of the band’s celebrated legacy. Most range between four and five minutes in length, with to-the-point arrangements, excellent riffs and vocals, and hooks aplenty. I’ve tried and failed to imagine which of these tunes Rage will incorporate into their live set, as honestly any of them would work well. If I could vote, though, I’d nominate “The Devil Strikes Again” for its crushing energy, “Spirits of the Night” for being maybe my favorite Rage song since the ‘Soundchaser’ album, “My Way” (lyrically, a commentary about the drastic changes in the band and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity) as an obvious and excellent anthemic single, and perhaps “War” (my god, what a chorus) and “Ocean Full of Tears” (which almost sounds like a Megadeth song in the verses before revealing a majestic Peavy chorus) as well for being awesome.
By contrasting ‘The Devil Strikes Again’ with its immediate predecessors, I don’t mean to imply that the Victor Smolski era was bad in absolute terms. It wasn’t. I really like albums like ‘21’ and ‘Strings to a Web,’ even, and Smolski’s obviously a remarkably talented guy. It’s just that Rage was losing its way, Peavy was becoming increasingly frustrated, and the band were drifting too far from what made them great. On ‘The Devil Strikes Again,’ Rage have fixed all that. This album is the logical successor to ‘Black in Mind.’ It shows Peavy inspired, excited and happy, with a pair of outstanding new bandmates along for the ride. I can’t imagine any Rage fan not being positively delighted with this album. Yeah, I’ve seen some reviews suggesting the Peavy’s lost a bit of his vocal range and maybe that’s true, but who cares? He still sounds fantastic. Also, there are multiple editions of this album floating around. There’s the standard 10-track version, a deluxe edition with a bonus disc containing three more fine originals and three cover songs (Skid Row, Rush, Y&T) of oddly questionable value, and a special 3 CD version including a 54-minute live recording of Rage opening for Helloween in Warsaw in February 2016. If you’re a die-hard, the 3-CD version is the one you want because the live record is fantastic, with a well-chosen setlist, outstanding performances, and a raw but adequate production. The main takeaway is that, if you’ve ever cared about Rage before, you must investigate ‘The Devil Strikes Again.’ I’ve been a Rage fanatic for more than a quarter century, and this album makes me happy in my heart. Somehow I think Peavy feels exactly the same way.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~