A werewolf, a phantom and Mr. Hyde walk into a graveyard…
Frontiers Records has been something of a godsend for those out there who like their metal melodic and guitar oriented, being a sort of go-to label for a number of veterans of the scene looking to keep their name out there. Among their more recent acquisitions is the iconic maestro of all things shred, or as Yngwie Malmsteen would refer to him, “the competition”, Chris Impellitteri. The younger crowd may remember his vocalist Rob Rock (not the Metallica producer that helped kill thrash metal) as a occasional guest on early albums out of Tobias Sammit’s Avantasia, but both he and the six-string mastermind behind the songs have been at it since the primeval year of 1983, originally as members of the metal/rock outfit Vice, and collaborating under the moniker of his last name for the better part of the last 30 years. The changing tides of metal have not gone unnoticed to the fold of musicians under consideration, and if their latest offering <i>Nature Of The Beast</i> is any indication, they are far from averse to the ongoing trend towards a heavier and more massive sound in keeping with a number of heavy and thrash metal outfits of yesteryear’s more recent output, let alone the European power metal scene’s affinity for theatrics.
In keeping with previous offerings and incarnations of this band, this album is a very flamboyant balancing act between the wild technical prowess of the guitarist and a compact songwriting formula that makes things palpable to an audience that doesn’t necessarily want to hear an album of 10 minute epic shred fests. In contrast to fellow shred impresario Malmsteen’s Rising Force, these songs have more of a speed metal base to them, almost like a modernized answer to the iconic Becker vs. Friedman show that was Cacophony. The riffing style is loaded to the brim with ornamentation, largely in the form of rapid-paced scale runs that mirror the Neo-classicism of Yngwie, but is otherwise a bit more in line with a sped up version of old school heavy metal given the more stripped down arrangement and heavier demeanor. By contrast, the choruses have a very strong European power metal sound, occasionally crossing into Helloween territory, and otherwise leaning a bit more on that hook-driven, iconic old school fanfare vibe that speed metal acts like Primal Fear and Paragon imported from Judas Priest, and likewise mirrors the fast yet precise character of sound in the rhythm section and employs keyboards sparingly for atmospheric effect.
At first glance, this album has all of the trappings of a modern speed metal affair, putting forth a heavy-ended riffing display that is a typical feature of modern metal acts over the past decade yet a bit atypical for this outfit. The opening bruiser “Hypocrisy” listens like an opening anthem of metallic celebration in the Primal Fear vein, but with a guitarist that’s even fancier than Magnus Karlsson and takes more frequent opportunities to let it be know. A fairly similar modern speed metal vibe is struck on crushers like the almost thrashing riff monster “Gates Of Hell” and the almost metalcore melodic anthem “Wonder World”, while this band’s insane rendition of Sabbath’s “Symptom Of The Universe” that brings out the latent porto-thrash metal characteristics of said song with a vengeance. Even when things take a breather for more grooving territory such as “Man Of War” and the Dio-like rocker “Kill The Beast”, the guitars refuse to settle down with the rest of the arrangement and continually give the tech junkies what they want while roping in a few old school fans. Novelty hunters of the more symphonic persuasion will find a momentary draw with a take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom Of The Opera” that’s faster than but fairly comparable to the Nightwish rendition, and those who want speed like it’s going out style will be more than satiated by the frenetic fury of “Fire It Up” and “Run For Your Life”.
Although Impellitteri would likely never consider it a competition, there is a sizable contingent of shred fans who are likely keeping score between where this outfit’s albums go vs. Malmsteen’s concurrent trajectory in the studio, and a more insular and instrumentally-geared approach out of the latter of late will naturally have fans looking for greener pastures comparable to where Ygnwie was in the 80s and early 90s. While this album is pretty far removed from a twin of Rising Force’s formative offerings, this one could pass for a somewhat distant cousin to the Michael Viscera era when things were still cooking yet also moving towards a heavier and more dangerous end of the heavy metal spectrum. Crossover appeal into the more vicious end of the European power/speed metal scene is pretty much a given as well, and perhaps even the lighter end of the spectrum occupied by old school Edguy and a few others when dealing with the melodic content behind Rob Rock’s sleazy pipes and the thunderous instrumentation behind them. Whether you like your accessible protagonist morphing into a werewolf, a misshapen freak with a knack for pipe organs and nooses, or the less than pleasant trollish Mr. Hyde, this album is about as effective of a display of dueling consonance and rage as one can get at present.
The Ghost of a Primeval Past.
The relatively recent phenomenon of retro-heavy metal reminiscence could be likened to a seasoned veteran going on to a youthful audience about the need to get back to the good old days. This lecture varies a bit from one old-timer to the next, even though most bands in this capacity are comprised predominantly of younger musicians, and usually ranges in quality based on the kind of accompanying tale being told. For the recently birthed, Brooklyn-based epic outfit dubbed Tanith, the tale is a vivid adventure tale comparable to those old 1970s and early 80s animated renditions of Tolkien’s works, and with the added benefit of having an original icon of the NWOBHM in Satan’s Russ Tippins to assist in the telling. Thus stands In Another Time, a full on throwback to the late 70s to close out the curious decade that has been the 2010s, yet also a fresh offering that totally emulates the archaic rock/metal sound of 40 years past while presenting it in a way that was not heard at the time.
A litany of prominent bands from the earliest days of the British heavy metal scene and elsewhere come to mind when considering the nimble, engaging mode of musical storytelling on display here. Perhaps the most obvious comparison from a sonic perspective would be the early days of Iron Maiden when Paul Di’Anno was at the helm, alongside maybe a dash of late 70s Judas Priest after the mold of Stained Class, particularly when considering the more heavily distorted character of the lead guitar work. But from an angle of songwriting and stylistic expression, this band has all the makings of a Thin Lizzy tribute band with maybe a side order of Uriah Heep, right down to the airy vocal swagger of Russ Tippins, combined with a dueling harmonized guitar style indicative of a heavy Gorham and Robinson influence, while the flashy guitar soloing definitely shows traces of Gary Moore. The only aspect of this album that doesn’t scream overt Thin Lizzy influences is the inclusion of a female vocal foil in bassist Cindy Maynard, who definitely imbues band’s old rock sound with a sort of early doom meets folk sensibility to go with the lofty tales told in the lyrics.
As with any retro-based album, there is a very obvious and concerted effort to recapture the original atmosphere of the time period in question, and this album accomplishes it almost to a fault. From the noodling, Steve Harris inspired bass work and comparatively busy lead riffing that dominates every moment the vocals are absent on “Cassini’s Deadly Plunge” to more cruising fits of mixed up goodness like “Mountain” and “Wing Of The Owl (Gatantia, Pt. 3)”, this album sounds like the epic predecessor to Iron Maiden’s actual debut album that was never written meets the more metallic version of Jailbreak that couldn’t have been recorded in 1976. Further stirring the pot are a handful of more acoustically driven romps like “Eleven Years” and the folksy cruiser “Under The Stars” that accomplish the same basic idea that has driven Slough Feg since their inception, yet manages to get ever so closer to an authentic rendition of the original early sound. It truly gets difficult to tell where this band ends and a number of actual classic Uriah Heep and Blue Oyster Cult songs begin.
Though it is a little bit of a stretch to state that there is no comparable precedent for what is going on here at some point in metal’s history, even among the most archaic of offerings by the likes of Manilla Road, Brocas Helm and Heavy Load was there anything that sounded quite like this. There is a certain mystique to the way the soft, airy tenor of Tippins’ vocals harmonize with Maynard’s slightly higher pitched yet similarly geared croons that creates a sort of metallic equivalent of Simon and Garfunkle, over top a musical arrangement that is similarly of a folksy nature, yet at a crossroads between where metal would be in 1982 when things started getting more intense and the lighter mode of hard rock that was still being exemplified by the likes of Angel Witch and Demon. No self-respecting fan of old school heavy metal, particularly the iconic acts associated with the NWOBHM should go without hearing this album, and even those that go in traditional doom circles may want to consider this intricate assortment of brilliant throwbacks.
Where Ethereal Contemplation Meets Cold Technology.
For the past three decades Lance King has been a substantial force within the underground metal world on the western side of the Atlantic, to the point of being likened to a general leader a grand division of the underground resistance. In that time he has not only lent his voice to 10 different metal projects in both Europe and America, but has also been at the forefront of promoting melodic strains of metal the world over through his self-financed label Nightmare Records, fielding just under 150 releases by almost 100 unique bands. Suffice it to say, for someone so prolific and tied in with the metal world, any solo project bearing his name would present a wide array of possibilities for anyone so inclined towards the world of power/prog. Although this would first culminate in a highly impressive first offering in 2011 dubbed A Moment In Chiros, it seemed as though Lance was holding back a tad and not truly unlocking the entire potential of his 30 years in the business, let alone the full power of his iconic voice, which has often been compared to the likes of Geoff Tate and James LaBrie. But with the ushering in of 2019 and the release of King’s long awaited follow up ReProgram, it’s pretty safe to say that he may well have delivered his coup de grace.
One of Lance’s greatest strengths has been an eye for talent, always surrounding himself with highly competent musicians to a degree that rivals Ronnie James Dio, and with members of such respected outfits as Anubis Gate, Annihilator, Darkwater, Pyramaze and Spherical Universe Experiment rounding out his collaborators, this outing is no exception. The tendency towards virtuoso musicianship and involved, progressive-tinged songwriting that goes with such bands goes without saying, and the resulting sonic template that emerges through their performance can be best described as a portmanteau of two of King’s better known collaborations, i.e. with Balance Of Power and Pyramaze, communicated through a model heavily informed by the Kevin Moore era of Dream Theater and the more power metal infused variation of the same formula that was all the rage during the 2000s via Pagan’s Mind. All the flashy bells and whistles from noodling keyboard leads to odd-timed grooving riffs and soaring lead guitar lines meld perfectly with King’s polished and controlled vocal display and his socially conscious lyrics, which are heavily informed by his mystical brand of Christianity and a critical, first person approach to politics and sociology that borders on a conceptual plot line in a loose sense.
Despite being a heavily involved and complex listen, one of the key features of Lance’s many projects has always been a strong sense of symmetry to songwriting, resulting in catchy and highly accessible power metal anthems that have a more peripheral sense of progression and stylistic variation. On the simpler side of the equation is the abrasive and chugging opener and title song, which dispenses with any sense of introduction or buildup and simply smacks the listener upside the head with the chorus before settling into a mid-paced, off-time groove heavily reminiscent of something off his previous magnum opus with Pyramaze Legend Of The Bone Carver. This commonality with the aforementioned album proves to be a recurring theme on the album as not only King’s vocal approach largely tends to mirror the sound he brought to said album, but also the songwriting, as can be observed in more cruising anthems such as the guitar-happy “Stand Your Ground” and the frenetic almost to the point of thrashing speeder and blistering commentary on America’s obsession with media sensationalism “Chaotica”. These are naturally not pure carbon copies of Pyramaze’s mid-2000s sound as the musicianship is a bit fancier and the overall feel of things is less woodland-like and more modernized.
When getting a bit beyond this album’s occasional nostalgic tendencies towards what was arguably Lance’s most successful musical collaboration, this album runs a fairly sizable gambit of influences while still being anchored in a fairly uniform stylistic paradigm. The slow-paced, heavy character of “Reaction Formation” and the straight up rocking character of “Perfect World” definitely lean pretty heavily towards the middle period of Balance Of Power with King at the helm, and most particularly the infectious anthems of Ten More Tales…. Then again, the mechanistic grooves and frequent employment of quirky keyboard work and guitar noodling of “Technology” veers dangerously close to Dream Theater’s Awake, while the spacey sounds and chunky stomp of “Wide Open” mixes the same basic idea with a recurring keyboard theme that bears an uncanny resemblance to one of Dio’s more obscure late 80s anthems “When A Woman Cries”. But through it all, Lance finds himself excelling by falling back on the same blend of progressive detailing and power metal-infused hooks and riffs that defined his brief tenure with Pyramaze, as showcased in the utterly unforgettable sing-along romp “Limitless”, which along with the epic nod to Images And Words of a closer “A Mind At War” are the highlights of the opus.
Although Lance King probably has several years of making music ahead of him, at this stage of the game, ReProgram stands as his strongest and most comprehensive work to date, and a definitely boon to any fan of progressive metal after the Dream Theater and late 80s Queensryche formula. It’s a fitting eventuality given that this honor would otherwise continue to be bestowed to Legend Of The Bone Carver, to which this album functions as an unofficial musical sequel with all the obligatory expansion of ideas, not to mention showcasing a voice that hasn’t aged a day despite the passage of 13 years. Lyrically it can get a bit esoteric, but from an overall stylistic perspective this also about as accessible as it gets for anybody who is new to progressive metal and has a background in more traditional melodic sub-genres. Yet more so than anything else, it’s an album that perfectly balances the instant gratification that comes with a catchy, hook-oriented experience with the more of a grower tendency inherent in an ambitious, musically elaborate offering, having staying power while not requiring the same level of commitment to get the whole story processed. In a perfect world, there would be more albums like this one, that much is certain.
In light of recent research, another artifact has surfaced in Metal Archeology. Coming again from the UK, from Glasgow this time, it is the blackened death metal duo that is “Horoma Exordium”. For those of you not up to date, Metal Archeology is where we feature great bands with less than 100 likes on Facebook and at the time of writing of this post, the aforementioned duo is comfortably sitting at 98 likes despite being around since 2016.
With the sheer amount of metal bands out there, it is easy to get swept away by the flood of releases every month and miss some of the true gemstones. The Metal Observer will help you dig up these gemstones with less than 100 likes on Facebook in “Metal Archeology”. And the first find is Ty Morn from London, England.