Axel Rudi Pell - Knights Call - (8.5/10)
Published on March 4, 2019
As surely as the moon rising in the mist-ridden night, every other year the great wizard and chronicler of metal’s bygone days Axel Rudi Pell will construct another collection of familiar sounds. His is a world defined by constancy, for in his land there are many castles, but despite a few variations within their respective tapestries or outside ornamentation, they all capture the moonlight with that same Gothic grandeur and rise from the same fundamental blueprint. This lofty analogy is about as close to the reality that is ARP’s ongoing and near 30 year solo career as can be, for each of his studio efforts manage to maintain a faultless precision, from the fantasy-based album art to the fantastical blend of 70s era hard rock and early heavy metal of Rainbow, Deep Purple and The Scorpions with the 80s aesthetic that typified Dio and the Tony Martin era of Black Sabbath. Chalk it up to a musical orthodoxy that has become its own religion, or just one man off in his own world who regularly hires the same group of experienced guides to bring in a tour group every couple years, but Pell’s music is a veritable institution unto itself, and Knights Call, his 18th full length offering, stands as yet another class in the university of old school melodic metal.
Pretty much every album since the mid-2000s has been classified by a greater sense of minimal change and a greater emphasis on Pell’s affinity with the pre-power metal brand of epic heavy metal songwriting that was more a staple of the early 80s, consequently the speedier character of Jorg Michael’s tenure with the band and the early days of Mike Terrana’s run have been largely avoided. It’s somewhat ironic given that Bobby Rondinelli isn’t unschooled in playing faster material, though his past association with Warlock and Doro’s makes him an obvious man behind the kit for an excursion into old school German heavy metal, which is essentially what this album proves to be. The rest of the band generally follows suit, as Johnny Gioeli’s Dio-like snarls and occasional haunting croons tend to play it a bit safe, Ferdy’s keyboard work plays the atmospheric support roll by the numbers (barring a somewhat more dense and epic set of sounds during the obligatory prelude “The Medieval Overture” with war drums to boot), and Pell’s lead work follows its usual idiomatic blend of bluesy chops and occasional Malmsteen-like shredding. Truth be told, the biggest standout feature of this album is Volker’s bass work, which is a bit higher in the mix than usual and takes far more time outside the Ian Hill box that he is often relegated to.
There has generally been four legs that hold up Axel’s proverbial musical throne: namely rocking metal anthems, nostalgic balladry, grandiose epics after the mold of Rainbow’s Stargazer and Sabbath’s Heaven And Hell, and the occasional foray into instrumental shred/Neo-classicism where he channels the virtuoso side of his inner Ritchie Blackmore. In this album’s case, the balladry has been rather auspiciously de-emphasized (only one in the place of the usual two or three) and a strong helping of moderately fast and grooving rockers dominate much of the listen. “The Wild And The Young” and “Follow The Sun” are the closest that this album gets to outright cruising speed, and they tend to follow the usual patterns as the faster material heard on Circle Of The Oath and Into The Storm, just picture a pace similar to Gary Moore’s “Out In The Fields” and make the guitar solo about three times as long and the formula becomes obvious. Clocking in a bit closer and crunchier, yet still quite effective are mid-paced rockers in “Long Live Rock” and “Slaves On The Run”, which live and die by the almighty hook and command one to party like its 1985.
Though overall the musical picture being painted here is a bit more straightforward than the past few albums, the more involved side of this band is still given a solid showing. In the same tradition of merging a heavier and denser atmosphere with the eastern-tinged splendor of “Stargazer” and “Gates Of Babylon” that typified the title songs of several recent offerings, “Tower Of Babylon” rings all to familiar, if maybe a tad less elaborate. “The Crusaders Of Doom” nails down the longer winded approach from more of an early 80s Sabbath angle and functions in maybe a slightly less effective manner than unmitigated classics like “Mystica” and “The Gates Of The Seven Seals”, whereas the piano-driven ballad “Beyond The Light” rings a tad bit catchier than many recent parallel efforts but doesn’t surpass the poignant charm of “Oceans Of Time” or “The Clown Is Dead”. The only area where this trend of solid but not quite spectacular is broken is the instrumental shred fest “Truth And Lies”, which opts for a more rocking as opposed to Neo-classical approach and sees Axel and Ferdy tearing it up in a fantastic display of chops reminiscent of Blackmore and Lord, and Volker sees a bit more time in the sun for his bass work, though it sticks to the standard fair of Roger Glover and doesn’t turn into an all-out shred fest a la Joey Demaio.
At this juncture in this sage of melodic metal’s career, converting new fans has generally taken a backseat to giving his existing fan base what they expect, consequently most of the truly astounding work of Pell’s career is now more than ten years in the past. Nevertheless, for the steadfast old school heavy metal fan who still longs for the days when Ronnie James Dio’s was throwing the horns in the air with either Iommi or Blackmore to his left, every album out of this band’s arsenal has been a perfectly focused effort in revivalism where nostalgia and mystique trumps the modern clamor for novelty and change. In a sense, Axel is still manning a regiment in the underground resistance, despite being a fairly known quantity with a sizable following. This is very much a generation-specific brand of metal that will probably have limited appeal to anyone younger than their mid 30s, save those who are the most receptive to the current “New wave of traditional heavy metal” craze and have been continually won over by the ongoing efforts of bands like Astral Doors and Jorn in particular. Sustained romps into the age of medieval palaces caught in the moonlight is an acquired taste, and Knights Call is an effective but all too specifically geared affair for those already initiated.