Ancient Empire - The Tower - (8.5/10)
Published on November 28, 2017
One of the most frustrating paradoxes within the metal community is the twin fetishization of established names of the old school era and the fanatical worship of novelty and “progression”. These aren’t necessarily opposed to one another but there’s a process in which everything that was once fresh and ground-breaking eventually becomes mundane and part of the norm. The latter group in time becomes the former yet breaks away to find a new trend to run into the ground in a process that resembles less genuine interest in expanding and exploring metal’s potential as much as voraciously consuming any and all new short-lived amusements in order to socially validate oneself.
Sometimes I think that everyone, even the old school crowd, forgets why we revere what has been established and revered far before we even discovered the genre or were born. Namely that on its own musical merits, it worked damn well. Even if a band is technically generic, that doesn’t stop them from standing out on their own merits. One might say that the only true distinguishing feature of a band isn’t whether or not they sound fresh and up to date as much as if they can stand the test of time. California’s Ancient Empire have been steadily adhering to this idea since their 2014 inception with the solid if not quite fully polished When Empires Fall but two years later returned with a rock steady sophomore of simple but hard hitting material that made good on their promise. One year later and this metal machine has been fine tuned to a laser-precise cutting point.
The Tower is an album with little to go for it in terms of subtlety or nuance and unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1970 nothing is going to sound mind-blowing on paper. It’s mid-paced to jog-fast power metal in the classic American style, sometimes veering into chunkier fist-pump heavy metal territory and other times touching on tinges of thrash. As all the band members have been involved with the cult California act Hellhound it’s not surprising that they’ve picked up some of the bite and percussive chord barrage of that band, also sharing vocalist and guitarist Joe Lizst whose slightly raspy mid-range singing adds a stalwart and battle-ready mood. However that’s about as far as they go when it comes to anything that sounds quirky or “unique.” However, what turns otherwise plainclothes sounding metal into a memorable experience is their strong grasp on the fundamentals of hard boiled riff-crafting and vivid songwriting.
Right off the bat these Californians waste little time opening up with a steady stream of punchy, emphatic riffing that’s headbang friendly in its aggressiveness without falling into personality-free mechanical chug. The classic NWOBHM influence tends to come in with the terse lead fragments ingrained 80’s style US power metal, possessing a lot of the crunchy grit that would come to define thrash but with little of the hardcore punk inspired relentless jackhammer pounding. There’s little technicality but it’s used in an efficient fashion. Whereas quite a bit of power metal emphasizes vocals first and foremost, most of it has guitar playing second fiddle to singers who while talented aren’t often enough to carry a song. In Ancient Empire’s case, Joe’s voice has a grittiness to it that matches the punchy delivery, counterpointing his every inflection with sniper precision. Other points his voice will drop out so Joe can play some agile lead harmonies that break up established rhythms in segments established to build on hookiness and momentum.
However if you really want to know why this album sticks, it’s the distinct identity they’ve given each track. Opening title track opens up with slow, strained leads you’d normally hear concluding a song before flash forwarding to a ripping fast speed metal riff that could easily race alongside Helstar and Iced Earth, making way for effective single note leads shining behind Joe’s passionate delivery like beams of light. The pace shifts to more grandiose territory with the offbeat paused riffs buttressing climbing upper register melodies in the first seven minute epic, “In the Land of the Damned”, trading dangerous velocity for a grim and imperialistic march. However it picks up the momentum a little over a quarter in as the double kick march and humble legato-heavy solo make way for a high speed blitz escape, leaving us with the same heavy cadence from prior. “Darker Side of Midnight” and “Endless Curse” are the closest to classic heavy metal but the former is the stronger of the two, possessing an enthralling Iron Maiden style skipping beat and a sharp-witted riff dancing over the steady footwork. One of the album’s more memorable bass lines counterpoints Joe’s voice during the chorus as well before an arching arpeggiated lead resolves the melody.
In a ballsy move, the album ends with two seven minute epics, the morose “Dawn of Forever” going first. Its acoustic opening allows Joe to show the more soulful side of his voice but thankfully it’s not long before an ominous subdued riff rolls onwards like an army of tanks in the distance, Joe narrating epic visions of loss and triumph. It’s somewhat odd for them; it’s a powerful if mournful song yet little that goes on is particularly pounding or in your face compared to the rest of the album thought not to its detriment. On the other end, “The Last Sunset” is more stern in its gait with a quick single string picked rhythm that breaks up for a few climactic intersecting harmonies, building tension in the album’s most “atmospheric” entry for a simple but compelling chorus that instills an air of finality just in time for an gorgeously expressionist solo to bring it to a seemingly strong finish. However, while it does kick into the same motions near the end, the chorus is delivered with an extra dose of charisma and force as a bit of simple multi layered vocals and extra vigour (plus a nifty lead harmony) allows this ship of iron clad riffing and gutsy choruses to end on a hell of a high note.
Time tested, durably armoured, and battle hardened, Ancient Empire show that sometimes the best things are the most straightforward and gutsy. With naught a care given to genre progression or “worship” of past glories, this three piece fireteam stand among the best of the year regardless of style and approach. Occasionally some of its riffing feels a little stock and the bass is a bit thin and hard to make out from the steady guitar suppression fire yet the ratio of strong to slightly plodding riffage is not exactly slanted in the latter’s favour. Joe’s voice here is another strong point. While he’s far from what many of us would call the next Dickinson or Hansi Kursch, his tone alone is quite interesting; weathered in its determination, aged but not tired, and an interesting change of pace from the usual wannabe air raid siren types. Hopefully album four will continue this trend of overall upgrades to sound as well as their knack for making epic length tracks that while not proggy, has a lot of the finesse and careful craftsmanship that defines that take on older American style power metal. Recommended for fans of the previously mentioned bands along with Iron Savior, Grave Digger, Omen, Griffin, Sanctuary (USA), Scanner, Overkill, 80’s Savatage, Battleroar, and Rocka Rollas.