Hailing from Arizona, Judicator are the bright new shining stars in power metal that may have slipped under your radar. If this is the case, hang (or bang) your head in shame and tell yourself you’re a bad person – then grab a copy of The Last Emperor because it’ll show you what gold you’ve been missing. I think it’s about time I stopped referring to these guys as ‘newcomers’ because, on this new album, the band have really garnered control of their sound and lost any sense of flailing or pandering or unnecessary experimentation. Not that these were prominent characteristics of their previous works, but 2015’s At The Expense Of Humanity was an impressive and sprawling affair, whose enormous structures and prog sensibilities have been trimmed somewhat. So now Judicator return to the arena with a coherent, cohesive and concise slice of dynamic power metal that would certainly make Blind Guardian sit up and tremble. From the incredible artwork to the religious history concept, this is non-stop brilliance.
On the whole, The Last Emperor plays like a seamless fusion of Iron Maiden’s more progressive material and the speedy grittiness of Battalions-era Blind Guardian. The riff work especially could put Hansi and co. to shame. Check out those rapid-fire galloping riffs that explode out of “Raining Gold,” enough to make Kai Hansen circa-1985 blush. There’s even a super satisfying half-time headbanging section at the 2:30 mark – definitely one of the album highlights. Speaking of Hansi, it seems like the lads in Judicator managed to get the legendary mic-wielder himself to appear on track six “Spiritual Treason.” John Yelland’s vocals are so damn flawless throughout the record, and the layered harmonies resemble Blind Guardian so much, that Hansi’s iconic voice almost goes unnoticed! Well, I’ve never seen both Kursch and Yelland in a room at the same time, so who knows…? Tony and Michael are also on top form here, utterly shining when given the opportunity to play off each other. I love how main melodies are given to the duel-leads; such as the middle section of “The Queen Of All Cities”, where a beautiful folky melody is taken from being a vocal ‘la la’ segment, to a wonderfully harmonized guitar feature. Just one of many details that make up this masterpiece.
This album is structured perfectly. Rocketing out of the starting gates with three up-tempo power metal anthems, which are both accessible and fiery, is a great way to ease the listener in before the epic trio of “The Queen Of All Cities,” “Spiritual Treason” and “Antioch” is allowed to bore into your brain and really make you think. These three tracks require repeated listens and your full attention, but will prove to be oh so rewarding. Yelland really lets it rip here, with some piercing, but perfectly tuneful, screams. The last three numbers are a combination of the hookiness of the openers and the progressive majesty of the middle tracks. “It Falls To Jerusalem” provides a brief moment of respite at just the right point, before the redo of the band’s classic “King Of Rome” knocks you on your ass with one of the best riffs on the album (5:03!), and a stunning chorus. The more analytical ears will also get the hear some great bass lines popping up here and there, especially in the title-track. The amazing production quality fuses everything together seamlessly and glistens the package with a shimmering polish, whilst losing none of Judicator’s core power and aggression. This is what ears were made to listen to in heaven.
Kudos to the Tucson quartet for not letting a conceptual idea become self-indulgent. The theme of the first crusades of the late 11th century drives the lyrics and gives the record a world in which to belong. Stylistically, I couldn’t think of a better sub-genre to deal with this subject matter. The fantastic cover art also helps contribute to the atmosphere of the album. I would never turn anyone away from a Judicator album – after all, the guys stand for thinking man’s power metal, whilst remaining true and sincere to its steel core – but The Last Emperor is definitely a victorious culmination of the three LPs that precede it. With eight months still remaining in 2018, I may be making a bold statement when I say: this is the power metal album of the year. However, the more I hear this album, the more confident I grow in its staying power. Buy this gem now, you have no excuse.
The warmth of the vernal equinox.
Out today is the 11th full-length release from the Ukraine’s own, Drudkh with an album titled They Often See Dreams About the Spring in English. Anyone unfamiliar with the band should note that they compose and perform a style that could be labelled as intelligent atmospheric black metal. Admittedly, I threw in the intelligent label because theirs is a style that is mature, one that will please their die-hard fans but also garner interest from any forward-thinking, open-minded fan of extreme music. Let it be known that any current Drudkh fan will not be disappointed for there is no wandering off into left field present. Drudkh have crafted an album that fits neatly into their discography but still blazes a trail all its own.
Upon pressing play, one is greeted by a melodic fast struming riff, desolate yet hopeful in feel. Like the album cover, the listener is standing in the door awaiting to depart upon the upcoming journey. After a few repetitions some heavily accented palm-muted chords ring out inviting a forward, driving drum pattern. Fans of their previous albums will note that the atmosphere is created more throughout the compositions instead of a linear, starting soft and ending harsh path. Also, the opening is more aggressive as is the entire album. The music is built carefully with simple passages stacked on each other, creating a large kaleidoscope of sound with varied colors. The listener can tune in and tune out the world getting lost in the melodies that each wind along different paths.
A unique aspect to this album is the function of rhythm. In some areas there are faster tempos with some blasting toward the end of the album; however, the pace is close to that of classic Bathory or Celtic Frost. The rhythm is the constant practically throughout instead of the typical, blast, double bass, breakdown, and repeat formula for many other bands. It’s as if the rhythm is the canvas upon which the melodies are painted in their myriad colors and atmospheres.
Instrumentally, the sound is nothing short of gargantuan. Drudkh is like the black metal version of Isis. The guitar has a warm, earthy, organic sound as chords ring through clearly yet the dirt, the soil of the chord is rooted in heaviness. When employing the tremolo picking typical of most black metal, the sound is never thin for Drudkh employ so many layers of guitar tracks. It is challenging yet rewarding to try and analyze their different paths while listening. The guitars use much more syncopation and palm muting for emphasis in parts. The drums maintain the natural feel throughout as they employ an analog classic sound. Thankfully, Drudkh avoid the horrendous, clicking, popcorn-in-the-microwave drum sound of many other black and death metal bands. The bass guitar is a constant audible companion during the recording, and it manages to peak through between the layers of instrumentation regularly with its edgy punch. There are some keyboards here and there for added atmosphere, but they are not relied upon to the extent other black metal bands use them. Vocally, things are standard fare with the singer providing steady vocal passages and not taking control of the song or overpowering parts with shrieks or screams.
They Often See Dreams About the Spring is a much more straight-forward album than some of the band’s back catalog. While they do not touch on the folk elements on this particular album, the band still manages to etch its own “Slavonic” mark upon their brand of black metal. There are no acoustic guitars, nor are there any elements of prog aside from the atmosphere created. The key word to this album is unequivocally feeling. Approaching the songs from a more traditional perspective allows the music ample space to breathe and develop the feelings the band want conveyed. Arpeggios are used with less diminished tones compared to standard black metal which gives a unique twist upon the chord structures built throughout. Thematically, the album is based upon the works of different Ukrainian poets, one of which, Maik Yohansen, was murdered in 1937 by the Soviets. Drudkh convey themes of aggression and even inspiration throughout the album, but ultimately, I found the themes of going on a journey and catharsis to champion the recording. The cathartic journey is one that is spiritually shared between the band and the listener. This is already one of the best albums so far this year.
New Wave of First Wave Black Metal (NWOFWBM)
Do you ever get sick of listening to Celtic Frost? No? What about Hellhammer? No, too, huh? Well, since they don’t exist anymore, can I offer you another band whom I believe you will enjoy very much? Have I got a deal for you!
Their name is Dreadful Relic, and they released a superb CF/Hellhammer/first wave worship album in February. Even though the cover of the album looks more like a melodeath band (or something…I’m not really certain honestly), this is pure, simple, battering first wave black metal at its finest. The band’s biggest strength perhaps might be seen as its biggest weakness by some: these guys really sound like Tom G. Warrior and co. I mean, if the vocals weren’t different, I might think this was some lost CF release around the time of To Mega Therion. Fortunately, these guys have unique, deep, black metal vocals rather than Tommy G’s signature shout. It works really well in this context and I found it enjoyable throughout. Warm guitars punch out riff after riff of Celtic chaos that will have you banging your head from start to finish. They do an excellent job of mimicking the “is it black metal or is it something else or is it just its own thing” riffs of CF and Hellhammer. You’re asking if there are solos. Yes, there are solos, but they’re mostly just tremolo ravaged, maniacal shredders that serve to increase the turmoil. Occasionally, twisted melodies appear in the background, but these are just barely audible and are not the primary draw here. For the most part, this thing is fast paced and mean, simple and aggressive—no frills at all. The drummer just pounds away relentlessly, utilizing simple beat after simple beat to increase the power and force of the almighty riffs. The bass kind of just fuzzes in the background but provides a nice backdrop for the rest of the band. Occasionally one is provided a break from the madness—these come in the form of an intro (“Crom’s Ruinous Winds”), an interlude (“Stygian Oath”), and an outro (“Black doom in the Serpent’s Nest”). Otherwise, be prepared to be mutilated in just the most pleasant way.
I really wish I could write more about this album, because it is high quality, but it’s very difficult to move past “it sounds like Celtic Frost,” because there really isn’t a better way to describe these guys. This album is something special and something you’ve heard before at the same time. On the one hand, we’ve heard this done better by Celtic Frost. But on the other hand, nobody could expect someone to do To Mega Therion better than them, and these guys do it better than most. If you’re looking to re-enter the Circle of the Tyrants, give this one a shot.
Larry rounds up all the decent (and some not-so-decent) thrash releases for the headbang-happy year of 2017.
This was a banner year for death metal by any measure.
Here are some of our favorite death metal releases from 2017.
The diverse spectrum that encompasses metal music’s many sub-genres could be likened to various mythical races united under two opposing banners, staring each other down as they make ready to charge and turn the field red with the other’s blood. From one year to the next, the advantage may tip from one side to the other, but in the grand scheme of their eternal conflict, the forces of light and darkness have tended to be equally matched. 2017 saw the forces of melody and order take the advantage in the eyes of the reclusive bard that tells this end of the year tale, though naturally his is not the final word on such things, and other codices in the grand archives of metallic exploits deserve your consideration. Still, these are the 50 acts of heroism that defined the year, because too much has occurred to settle for a mere 30.
2017 has proven to offer up the tightest race we have seen in a long time in the quest for the gold! So without any further ado, here is the creme de la creme of the year!
December’s still a month, right?
Larry zealously and over-enthusiastically ranks the British power metallers’ discography.
The last of three articles on the awesome Mammothfest in Brighton – Day One and Two reviews already published on 21 October.