(Pure Steel 2016)
As a general rule, I pride myself on integrity and objectivity in my reviews. Sometimes, however, those principles go out the window. I’m biased as hell about this album. Not only are Widow great friends of mine, but I’ve gone on many adventures with them, both domestically and abroad. I hope to do the same when they hit the road in support of ‘Carved in Stone.’ If Widow were a baseball team, my role would be somewhere between the batboy and the bench coach, or maybe the dude who smuggles booze and broads into the locker room between innings. I say none of this to brag about how cool I am (“dude, I’m totally tight with the band”). The point is I’m not even a wee bit objective when it comes to Widow, and this review will necessarily be colored by my strong personal feelings. If that truth bothers you, then please stop reading now. I decided to review ‘Carved in Stone’ anyway because, notwithstanding my biases, I’m utterly convinced it’s a tremendous album that deserves to be heard. With that disclaimer in mind, here we go …
For the uninitiated, Widow are a traditional metal band from Raleigh, North Carolina, who have released five albums in the last 13 years. That timeline is important because Widow were doing this long before classic metal fell back into vogue with the metal masses and new bands started popping up on every street corner with Manilla Road patches and recycled Angel Witch riffs. (To be clear, I love a lot of those bands, so I’m not slagging them, by any stretch.) Not only do Widow predate the true metal revival, NWoTHM, whatever you want to call it, but also their take on the genre comes from a slightly different place than many of their peers. Sure, they were influenced by Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Who wasn’t? But those elements are barely discernable in Widow’s music these days. Guitarist / songwriter Chris Bennett is a huge (I mean, “yuuuge”) fan of guys like George Lynch and Jake E. Lee, so that a ‘Back for the Attack’ / ‘Ultimate Sin’ vibe comes through loud and clear, as do early Dio and Van Halen for that matter. Maybe the best way to put it is that Widow really specialize in a brand of rockin’, good-time, melodic heavy metal, featuring dazzling, fiery guitarwork interspersed amidst compact, mostly sub-four minute songs with straightforward arrangements and killer hooks.
‘Carved in Stone’ is both a logical continuation and an extension of the fine work that Widow did on their first four records. The band’s 2011 release, ‘Life’s Blood,’ marked something of a creative breakthrough, with altogether better, more consistent songwriting; a welcome turn toward serious lyrical topics and away from horror movies and partying; and stronger performances than had characterized Widow’s previous efforts. In some ways, ‘Carved in Stone’ follows in ‘Life’s Blood’’s footsteps. A lot of these songs wouldn’t have felt out of place on ‘Life’s Blood.’ The biggest difference between the two albums is that ‘Carved in Stone’ features a much more powerful and professional sound than its predecessor, the product of bassist / vocalist John E. Wooten’s years of experience working in a recording studio. Bennett’s guitars sound massive on this thing, and the album manages to exude just enough grime and feel both punchy and old-school, a difficult tightrope to walk. Sonics aside, there are other ways that ‘Carved in Stone’ sets itself apart from ‘Life’s Blood.’ Take “Time on Your Side,” for example, a brilliant mostly-acoustic ballad with no drums and subtle keys in the background, creating the canvas for a terrific vocal from Wooten. Widow have never tried anything like this before. The same can be said for “Live by the Flame,” which swings from understated mellow acoustic verses to a gigantic, arena-ready chorus; or the intro to “Burning Star” which sounds inspired by George Lynch’s work at the beginning of Dokken’s ‘Tooth and Nail’ album. So Widow have taken some chances here, done some experimentation, and gone out on a couple of limbs. That said, in fairness, big chunks of ‘Carved in Stone’ do sound like meat’n’potatoes Widow, very much in line with the style we know and love from them, so it’s important not to overstate the “experimentation” angle. This album is still instantly, unquestionably recognizable as Widow through and through.
Despite the record’s recent release date (late June 2016 through German’s Pure Steel Records), I’ve had a long time to live with these songs. After careful analysis, I’m utterly convinced that ‘Carved in Stone’ is Widow’s finest effort to date. While the vastly improved production and outstanding performances (Wooten has never sung better, and Bennett plays magnificently) are part of the reason, the real star of the show is the material. This collection of 12 songs is superb, as Bennett continues to refine and perfect his craft as a writer. There’s enough diversity to satisfy the ADD generation too, as ‘Carved in Stone’ features ripping speedsters (“Wisdom” and “Of the Blood We Bind”), rousing anthems (“Burning Star,” “Borrowed Time”) and touching ballady tracks (“Time on Your Side,” “Live By the Flame”). The lyrical content is more mature and introspective than ever, with themes involving the relentless passage of time, finding one’s path in life, and fire in darkness. When you stop and think, all of those themes are really saying the same thing at some level. At any rate, it’s not a stretch to think that a good half dozen of these tunes could become staples in the Widow live cannon for many years to come, as stuff like “Burning Star,” “Carved in Stone,” “Let it Burn” and “Wisdom” should absolutely smoke live.
When I said I was biased, I wasn’t kidding. But if you love traditional metal and want a different slant on our beloved genre than the scads of NWoBHM/Maiden-obsessed newcomers from a band that’s been slugging it out for a decade and half, Widow’s ‘Carved in Stone’ is easily and highly recommended. Widow also have justly earned their reputation as a fantastic live band, epitomizing the concept of a power trio (alongside the likes of Raven, The Rods, Exciter, and so on). So if they ever come to your town, take hold of the night and go see ‘em. Just beware of Lady Twilight and those American werewolves lurking in the shadows, and make sure you’re out of sight before daylight.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
ED NOTE: I am nowhere near as close to the band as Kit is (though I have met them and they are great guys), so I thought I would chime in here and say that if anything I feel Kit is being a bit conservative with his rating of this album. I don't hand out 10s very often, but to me this album would score one. In fact, if the year was to end right now I would say this is my 2016 Album Of The Year so don't let Kit's biased feelings throw you off, this album is extremely legitimate!!