(Heaven & Hell 2016)
Among the handful of U.S. labels doing yeoman’s work unearthing lost gems is Heaven & Hell Records. Much like their kindred spirits at Divebomb Records and Stormspell Records, Heaven & Hell have done a stellar job reanimating long-forgotten heavy metal albums on the CD format, often with remastered sound, interesting bonus tracks, photos and liner notes. Not everything that Heaven & Hell does fits within my narrow (close-minded?) stylistic boundaries; nonetheless, the label is pretty much a guarantee of quality.
The most recent batch of Heaven & Hell releases includes a reissue of ‘Warriors of the Night,’ the debut (and only) album of Pennsylvania’s X-Caliber. Although ‘Warriors of the Night’ dates back to 1986 and apparently fetches a pretty penny on Internet auction sites, X-Caliber was a heretofore-unknown name to me. When I heard the title track in the run up to the official reissue date, I knew I had to get this album. “Warriors of the Night” is the kind of mystical, magical ‘80s U.S. metal song that represents the genre at its very best, featuring a glorious epic fantasy feel reminiscent of the mighty Warlord and a superb chorus to die for. It would be misleading, however, to judge the album by this song and the cover artwork that depicts a mysterious caped, masked, musclebound warrior lifting a sword to the darkened, lightning-streaked heavens above a mist-covered landscape. You see, ‘Warriors of the Night’ is actually a much more diverse album than these indicators might suggest, with plenty of nods to commercial hard rock, love songs, and so on. It was a dangerous undertaking to straddle the traditional metal and AOR worlds in the 1980s, as neither camp much cared for the other. Even today, decades after the rivethead/poseur barriers have crumbled, it feels disconcerting to hear powerful cuts like “The Sword” and “Rock’s Alive” alongside decidedly wimpier (to use ‘80s metal parlance) fare such as “Tell Me Why” or “Don’t Say Goodbye.” That said, X-Caliber were certainly not the only U.S. band of that era to adopt such a hybrid approach. Medieval Steel did it. Virgin Steele did it for a while. Hell, it could be argued that even Warlord did it to a lesser extent.
Setting aside narrow genre classification boundaries, what matters at the end of the day is whether the songs and performances are good. In X-Caliber’s case, the answer is emphatically affirmative on both counts. The guitarwork of James F. Yedlick, III and Jerry Conrad is engaging, and Kevin Donegan’s vocals are excellent throughout, being quite tuneful while conveying just enough grit and attitude. As usual, Jamie King has done a fantastic job remastering the album and maximizing its sonic quality, although of course the limitations of the source materials shine through. Unfortunately, there are no bonus tracks and only a very limited booklet on this reissue, but I know that’s not for lack of trying on the part of Heaven & Hell. Three decades have passed and not every band is diligent about archiving their press clippings, photos, and demo/live recordings.
In the final analysis, ‘Warriors of the Night’ is very much an authentic product of its time, just drenched with the spirit and feel of the glorious 1980s. I understand why it’s such a sought-after album in the heavy metal underground and would strongly encourage collectors to check out this fine CD reissue. There is a caveat, however. For my own personal tastes, there are really only three great songs: “Warriors of the Night,” “The Sword” and “Rock’s Alive.” Try as I might to appreciate it, the more lightweight material elsewhere on the album doesn’t do terribly much for me, although it’s certainly listenable and competent for what it is. As a time capsule of American melodic hard rock/heavy metal in the mid-80s, X-Caliber’s ‘Warriors of the Night’ hits the spot, warts and all.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~