Welcome to Secret Steel, the fifth chapter, “Black Metal 1: An Unholy Union”
Forget the legacy, here’s the future
Interestingly, for a band that now features Greg Christian (ex-Testament) and Steve Robello (Dublin Death Patrol), Trauma is still best known for housing Cliff Burton for one of its demo recordings. Oddly enough though, the Californian band had already split up by the time of Burton’s death and was not resurrected until 2013, when Donny Hillier (vocals) and Kris Gustofson (drums) were the only former members to continue. Since then, seven other members have passed through the line-up, the band recorded Rapture and Wrath, and then the current five-piece (rounded out by Joe Fraulob) laid down As the World Dies. And, although not aiming for Trauma’s original speed/power metal target, it’s a respectable effort from some experienced hands.
Pinning down the current emphasis of Trauma is not easy. Certainly more relaxed than their Bay Area pedigree might suggest, there is nonetheless a certain spurt of adrenaline to some of the songs on As the World Dies that scorns the notion of a band rehashing old ideas. Chugging riffs and bursts of speed make their presence felt during “From Here to Hell” and “Run for Cover”, but – just as with Rapture and Wrath – that isn’t the focus, instead pursuing a more mainstream heavy metal formula that includes some groove influence. That means fans of Overkill’s 1990s output will find something to like, especially if Hillier’s vocals seem more comfortable than the incessant shrieks of Bobby Blitz, with the musical palette similarly broad. The mid-paced material takes in some classic metal and hard rock techniques, for example in the poignant Dio/Halford chorus of “Last Rites” and the graceful twin lead melody that follows it. However, don’t get to thinking that As the World Dies looks back to the ‘80s for much of its inspiration, since there are strong parallels to the murky trudge of Alice in Chains on the title track and particularly “Asylum”, right down to the nasal whine of the vocals.
This mix of styles might wax unseemly for a band of Trauma’s history and pedigree, though it is all too seldom that we see a “classic” band exploring other sounds – and so effectively, it must be added. Other than the interest value of bringing together disparate ideas, the production helps make the album a force to be reckoned with. Much punchier than the previous effort, the guitarists get a thick rhythm tone somewhere between recent Exodus and Accept output, while the leads sparkle more energetically than the heavy base. Speaking of heavy bass, Christian and Gustofson assure a gut-level punch of truly modern proportions, meaning that the lower pace of the album is balanced by greater power. As such, credit must go to Fraulob for the sterling production job, as well as to Juan Urteaga, who brings some of the mixing qualities associated with past work with Testament and Machine Head. Therefore, even on a sonically modern song like “Asylum”, occasional flashy guitar fills bring to mind albums like Testament’s Dark Roots of Earth – another successful combination of classic and modern elements.
As such, Trauma seem to have made a leap from their past into the present and landed with both feet firmly planted. Despite not becoming part of any particular trend (the ‘90s references will see to that), As the World Dies certainly sounds like something current rather than something fun but ultimately passé, partly because of the album’s weight but also the occasional lead trickery that turns “Entropy” into a highlight and perks up the mediocre “Cool Aid”. A few moments of ho-hum music discolour “Gun to Your Head” and lead track “The Rage”, though a lasting favourable impression is assured by placing the irresistible melodic chorus of “Savage” at the end of the album, surely resulting in most listeners singing it for the rest of the day. Overall, As the World Dies might not be a special album, yet it represents a strong step for Trauma into a relevant future and reminds other reformed bands that nostalgia doesn’t preclude new ideas.
With heaviness they rise
Ballsy gruff riffing and the throaty gurgle of bass isn’t what most people remember the NWOBHM for, but if Traitors Gate have anything to do with things, it could yet become a genre staple. Another band who gave it a go in the ‘80s and have decided that regrouping would be a smart move, the four-piece have traded in vocalists once again for Sy Davies to appear on their first full-length almost 40 years after first forming. Despite the big numbers in the last sentence, the Welsh fellows have made efforts to bring their sound into the 21st century and benefit from the bulk that Andy d’Urso drags around in his guitar case, as well as the total meanness of the gritty approach.
These words like ‘gruff’, ‘grit’, and ‘bulk’ are all descriptions of the guitar tone that dominates the low end of the recording with steady, almost doomy riffing. Coupled with Davies’s bold, vibrato-laden mid-range, the style becomes almost oppressive, smearing flat the usual topographic splendour of trad metal’s varied pitch and hitting the listener in the gut with an onslaught of forbidding power. The stark topics that inform songtitles like “Retribution”, “Deceiver”, and “Fall from Grace” are suited to this style, which feels better-equipped for modern world problems than high-pitched squealing and duelling lead guitars ever did. As a result, it’s hard to think of direct comparisons to Traitors Gate, since the songwriting is not unusual for heavy metal yet the sonic atmosphere is much more serious. Let’s put it this way: fans of Argus will probably dig this, as will those interested in Saxon’s ‘00s output; fans of Iron Maiden will probably find Fallen boring.
The simplicity of the set-up does indeed lend this full-length some issues, since a few songs are so sparse in tonal coverage that they sound positively empty, especially when d’Urso pushes power chords into the abyss of the pre-chorus in “Sign of the Cross”. It’s also absolutely true that the drumming of Paul House does no favours, rarely adding anything beyond basic beats, which is part of the reason for the lack of content during the slower parts. With few moments of pace and little to speak of regarding moments of lead guitar activity, the appeal of a metal album like this seems limited. However, do not underestimate the fearsome way that d’Urso launches into the chorus riff of “Sign of the Cross” when he’s finished messing about: the three choruses in that song each take your head off from a different angle, while Davies chimes in with a strident and drearily poignant ode to fallen heroes. Traitors Gate might not know much about apostrophes, but they know how to write a hook.
After the initial shock of the album’s heaviness and minimalism wears off, the realization sets in that Fallen consists of a bunch of 10 conservatively written songs. Structure tends to be cyclical and focuses on the strength of the chorus, meaning that “Retribution” and the title track deliver the goods only at particular intervals, while “Homeland” does combative riffing until the refrain relents in amnesty. There are no awful songs, though “Mean Streets” sounds especially like a throwback to 30 years ago, completing the banal hard rock strut with a repetitive gang chorus of “Shot down, shot down on the mean streets.” The highlights come in the middle of the album and are the only songs that maintain their edge from start to finish. “Solar Plains” succeeds from sheer confidence and some nice chord changes, but “Edge of Destruction” opts for speed and a more stirring vocal delivery to spice up the verses to Painkiller levels, which is the most alive the band sound on Fallen.
Not to knock Traitors Gate for recording their debut after decades of inactivity, but there was absolutely no reason for associating this kind of modern heaviness with the classic name, not in terms of similar sound anyway. Sceptics will rub finger and thumb together with a cynical expression on their faces, although it’s reassuring to know that the old team (plus new singer) made something that doesn’t merely cash in on old demos or the like. Recommending Fallen to the original fans of Traitors Gate may be slightly risky; however, for the rest of us, here’s a slab of classic songwriting tuned into the new millennium.
Taking the wrecking ball to a legend
There are bands that build up a legendary status and run with it, some call it quits while people are still sad about that happening and then there are some that try to continue on and completely ruin everything that they had once stood for. Enter David DeFeis and Virgin Steele. The New Yorkers ascended into the highest echelons of symphonic and theatrical power metal with albums such as Noble Savage or the outstanding duologies of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and The House of Atreus before starting to dip with The Black Light Bacchanalia and then going for an absolute crash landing with Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation, shedding much of the qualities that had once made them one of the hottest acts and especially in the vocal department showing at times cringeworthy performances. So when Seven Devils Moonshine was announced as a 5-CD box with three (!) full albums of new material, it felt more like a threat than a promise.
The two last CDs are re-issues of Hymns to Victory and The Book of Burning, in line with the recent re-releases of the band’s back catalogue, so the review will focus on the other three albums totaling to almost four hours of music and the last time a band tried something as ambitious as this, it backfired completely (see Therion’s three-hour snoozefest Beloved Antichrist). And DeFeis continues to actively not just chisel away on his legend status, but he has now resorted to the wrecking ball approach, because where Nocturnes already was bad, Seven Devils Moonshine reaches a new nadir for Virgin Steele.
Dave DeFeis has always been known for a very theatrical approach to singing, with a strong falsetto, some growls (not death metal like growls, more something feral, in line with his nick name “lion”), but always with great control and working with the song, but from opener “Seven Dead Within” on it already becomes clear that the alarming tendency of the previous album continues with DeFeis’ voice being all over the place, switching from a warbling “normal” tone to wailing highs and weak growls, but without the flow or power he used to master. The fact that the song underneath is boring does not help matters, neither does the production that puts the vocals fully centre and to the fore, while the guitars suffer greatly. Both Nocturnes and now this set actually make one wonder what happened with Ed Pursino as well, since his playing is greatly subdued, feels uninspired and makes one wonder what is role within Virgin Steele is these days.
Now this sounds very doom and gloom, but unfortunately it is not just a bad start to the album, but the one that sets the pace for the following hours and confirms that Nocturnes has not been a one off dud. There are a few “orchestral versions” to be found here and they sound cheap and badly done, like “Bonedust”, where there is no structure, no real build and at times he almost sounds like he is singing backwards, because he is completely unintelligible.
Everything sounds bloodless and blah, there is no dramatic moments, no soaring choruses, no outstanding melodies, it just blubbers past and even when the tempo goes up a bit, there is no power, no conviction. A good example for this lack of energy and spark is “Feral”, ten minutes long, with the same tempo through and through, lacklustre vocals (some of the high pitched yelps are just cringeworthy), a noodled guitar solo that doesn’t match the rest of the song, if this is feral, I don’t want to see their definition of a house cat. The duo of “Julienne” and “Princess Amy” is among the most vapid ballad-like material of recent times and the horrendous cover version of Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game” is an abomination even on this trip through the haunted castle, even more so as it is stretched beyond belief to over 9 (!) minutes. Add to that that the following two songs almost seamlessly pick up where it left off, making it feel like an even longer torture.
And all this was just the first album! The second one…well, if the listener’s ears have not caved in yet, they will try to find a way to seal themselves, because the piano and vocal version of “The Evil in Her Eyes” (original off Noble Savage) has some horribly shrieky vocals that are interspersed with forced sounding growls, efficiently killing an originally great song. But what follows ranges somewhere between seedy bar music and mediocre as best rock, since there is not an ounce of metal to be found on this trainwreck, the song title of “Rip Off” will probably be quoted a lot, when people buy this set without hearing anything first.
The hits just keep coming, like with “Jesus Just Left Chicago” (with this weird “Chicowgow” pronunciation), which feels like DeFeis try to bring in the bar/blues feel, but falls flat with his odd phrasings and total lack of flow, continuing to drag into “Soul Kitchen” and the following tracks which all seamlessly blend into each other (and make one wonder why they were separated into different tracks to begin with) and despite their respective short duration drag on and on, even featuring a reprise of “When the Music’s Over” (which is only a mean tease, since there still is plenty to follow). And “The Triple Goddess”… After almost three minutes of pressed sounding narration it morphs into a pseudo-symphonic song with random-seeming choir before bringing in female vocalization and then finally going somewhat orchestral, but without rhyme, reason or cohesion. It is telling, if live acoustic versions of older songs (in this case “Twilight of the Gods” and “Transfiguration” off The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Part II) are the highlights of this set, where even DeFeis still sounds like he used to.
Then on to disc three and a whole bunch of “orchestral versions” and this is where things go from really bad to even worse, starting off with the complete destruction of the originally dynamic and dramatic “I Will Come For You”, which has been stripped of everything (including quality) but piano, cheap orchestral sounding keyboards and DeFeis cringeworthy vocal performance, where he sings, yelps, growls and shrieks his way through the song, practically murdering what once had been a great song. Or “Kingdom of the Fearless” off The House of Atreus Act I, which is another abominable piece of musical homicide, killed by cheap symphonics, horrible vocals and everything dragging on from the beginning on.
And to be clear, ‘orchestral version’ does not mean to just go only vocals and piano. It would require some actual “orchestral” elements, which the majority of these versions here does not have. But that is just a minor gripe in comparison to the rest. Mother Love Bone’s “Bone China” is not sacred either, a rare cover of this song, but it falls in line with the rest of the album, unfortunately, since the vast majority of this disc sounds almost the same, one way or another, be it Led Zeppelin, the three Mother Love Bone covers etc., which at times are made even worse by DeFeis odd phrasings and pronunciations (like ‘dawkness’), which further defile some of the blues songs he decided to cover with just vocals and piano as well, making the third disc another absolute waste.
Now this review probably reads overtly negative, but every single word is absolutely deserved and is a manifest to how low this band has sunk. This constitutes first degree musical homicide. Nocturnes… had been a very bad omen, but nobody could expect Seven Devils Moonshine to be as total of a disaster. One album of this would have been bad enough, but whatever prompted DeFeis to release three of them in one shot goes way beyond any comprehension. If this set can serve one purpose, then as living proof that some bands should call it quits when people are still sad about it…
So even if you are an absolute die-hard fan of Virgin Steele – AVOID at all costs!
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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.
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December’s still a month, right?