Gaia Epicus - Alpha & Omega - (9.5/10)
Published on February 22, 2019
When It All Comes Full Circle.
If ever there was an inspirational tale of strife and triumph within the underground metal resistance that took shape in Europe during the 90s, at least in a power metal context, the one of Trondheim’s own Gaia Epicus is such a tale. It’s earliest incarnation dating back to 1992 when metal was declared persona non grata in much of the major market outlets, and the principle sound taking shape amid the underground was that of early 2nd wave black metal upstarts like Immortal and Darkthrone (and perhaps a remnant of death metal imported from the booming Swedish scene), they went by the moniker Execution and bounced around between punk, AOR and thrash metal. Flash forward to 2001 and following a small number of name changes and sub-genre shifts, the Gaia Epicus that much of power metal world today was born and immediately latched onto the insurgent power metal revival that took much of Europe by storm. In their formative period under this name they billed themselves as a progressive power metal act, though apart from a few quirky elements here and there, were more conformed to the German speed/power sound of Gamma Ray and Helloween.
This little historical aside, which culminated in the band eventually having a falling out with their label Sound Riot Records over a lack of support (a claim bolstered by other bands who were on the label and the company itself folding soon after Gaia Epicus vacated the premises) and going wholly independent, is relevant because it provides much needed perspective on their wildly eclectic and astounding sixth opus Alpha & Omega. It was often noted by the critical field of the early to mid-2000s when Gaia Epicus put out its first couple albums that lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Thomas Hansen seemed to have a voice more befitting a speed/thrash band, and interestingly enough the old early 90s thrash influences that were all over the Execution days of this band found themselves creeping back into the now Gaia Epicus formula on their third studio album Victory. The two albums that would follow largely walked back these innovations in favor of the older Gamma Ray oriented sound, but a full six years after that fact and in a wildly more varied musical scene in 2018, that temporary synthesis that yielded their veritable 2007 magnum opus has returned even stronger.
The production value and aggression level of this album is off the charts not only compared to this band’s own back catalog, but also relative the vast majority of the post-Keepers era Helloween school. If there is one band that immediately comes to mind as a point of comparison, it would be that of Iron Fire and particularly their crushing, semi-thrashing monster of a 2016 offering Among The Dead. Thomas Hansen’s vocal assault on bruising thrashers such as “The System Is Down” and “Blinded By Hate”, which also crush hard enough to rival the high octane classics of Bay Area mainstays like Exodus and Heathen, finds him snarling with the same sort of nasally growl that Martin Steene has been toting for the past decade, meshed with maybe a side helping of Mustaine inspired gruff. Truth be told, the almost equally thrash-happy opener “War Against Terror” could pass for some of the faster work that Megadeth has been pumping out lately, whereas the more mid-paced riff monster “Crush” seems to veer back into the context of the early Execution era and draws from the early 90s Megadeth and Metallica well, coming off like a hybrid of “Enter Sandman” and “Symphony Of Destruction”.
Though Gaia Epicus’ sound flirts pretty shamelessly with going full on power/thrash, there is still a healthy dose of melodically tinged, speed-happy fodder for the German in us all who’ve followed this act since the Satrap days. Gamma Ray tinged anthems such as “Don’t Be A Fool” and “Land Of The Rising Sun” could be all but full on throwbacks to the early 2000s revival days with the exception of whoever handled the drum production on this baby being a huge Andy Sneap fan. Likewise, Hansen takes this newly acquired access to a more massive studiio sound to retread an old classic in “Fire & Ice (Reborn)”, amping up the 2003 classic nod to Stratovarius with a faster pace, a denser vocal section during the chorus, and a wild shredding guitar solo. To be full forthcoming, this entire album is chalked to the brim with amazing lead guitar wizardry that could rival the most tech happy days of Roland Grapow and Henjo Richter’s careers in the late 1990s. There is also the somewhat dark and progressive grooves of “The Poison”, the mid-paced thrashing groove with an occasional Star Wars soundtrack quote “Join The Dark Side”, and arguably the greatest epic composition of Gaia Epicus history in a massive homage to classic Iron Maiden dubbed “Alpha & Omega”.
Thomas Hansen has largely been going it alone with a revolving door of live and studio session musicians for the better part of a decade now, so all of the truly breathtaking anthems of power metal and thrashing brilliance with all the obligatory nods to the classics could be accredited to his own independent genius, even going so far to handle bass duties all on his own and putting together an album that is possibly the most bass oriented thing to come out of this band’s 26 year history. If nothing else, this has brought this project out of the shadow of being simply a tag-along during the latter days of the millennial power metal revolution to a mainstay in its own right, complete with its own characteristic sound and niche. Concepts like genre-defining often get bandied around with little care being taken, but this is one of those albums that very well could prove a game-changer in the coming years, particularly for the burgeoning Norwegian power metal scene which also saw an incredible offering out of Guardians Of Time a little earlier this year. If nothing else, any Gamma Ray fans who are fretting over the extended hiatus said band has been on since the “Pumpkins United” tour took off will find a more than adequate album to ease their fears.