Gatekeeper - East of Sun - (9/10)
Published on April 23, 2018
Cold steel dawn from the frozen north.
One of the most satisfying things to experience is watching a band you have followed for years release a debut album and being among the first to hear it. While they formed in 2009, it wouldn’t be in 2013 when Canada’s Gatekeeper released their debut demo, Prophecy and Judgement, that I caught wind of them. This was when they had the surprisingly graceful if somewhat mellow voice of Shorre McColman handling vocal duties. I was immediately in awe of their colossal riffing and the vast scope of their songs, recalling it as reminiscent of Atlantean Kodex (a definite influence on them) albeit riffier and with better variety in songwriting. Two years later and I would hear them on two splits with the similarly talented Eternal Champion and Funeral Circle (the latter of which unfortunately seems effectively finished a band). The raw intensity and pure heaviness had increased tenfold with an emphasis on faster tempos on riffs as broad as a swing of a battleaxe. After three relatively quiet years, they’ve finally unleashed not only their debut album but an impressive new singer: J. Priest who had previously made a name for himself in yet another cult but disbanded group, Borrowed Time, as well as in Funeral Circle whom I was able to hear live with his amazing vocals at the forefront. While a fair share of the material present is rerecorded, Priest gives an amazing performance that gives material old and new a newfound vividness that Shorre, while still talented in his own right, could not achieve.
This particular style of heavy metal, simply titled “epic (heavy) metal”, has always been a fairly cult one. Nowadays its forefathers like Manilla Road and Cirith Ungol as well as Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus if we’re including the epic doom subgenre are far better recognized. However beyond a few names, its most of its practitioners such as Battleroar, Ordalia, Litany, Capilla Ardiente and these Canadians remain nearly unknown. That’s quite a shame; most of the “retro” and “new wave of traditional heavy metal” bands they get lumped in with can’t compare at all. Rather than attempting to recreate 80’s heavy metal as interpreted by boring tongue in cheek ironic humour and in jokes, Gatekeeper captures the spirit of defiance and adventurousness rather than a semblance to a particular band and in the process create a fresh and compelling take on a classic idea with what might be one of the top ten greatest albums in the style, joining groups such as Burning Shadows and Lunar Shadow as among the elite of this elusive and mystifying style.
Gatekeeper’s style is dense, pummelling, and simply massive or well, “epic” in scope. It’s not particularly NWOBHM reminiscent sounding for classic styled heavy metal in the new millennium, focusing less so on short and catchy riffs, singalong choruses, or sugary leads as much as a colossal hammerblow chords that bear a bit of a doom influence by how fucking massive they sound and heroic, soaring vocals almost at times bellowed yet at others strangely subdued and serene. While it does open with the same level of velocity and riffines as Liege Lord on Master Control or Thundersteel era Riot, the album is mostly midpaced with occasional forays into uptempo territory. These slower tempos however work perfectly for the emphasis on their stompy, chordal riffs many of which have an almost thrash level of crunch to them and a broader sense of melody, augmenting them with concise leads occasionally allowed to elongate for longer harmony oriented sections were Priest’s voice really gets to shine. Speaking of that, he’s probably the strongest part of this already deadly warhorde. While Borrowed Time and Funeral Circle showed his impressive range and character, Gatekeeper adds to that raw power that rivals Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch. He has a muscular upper-mid tone with a muscular timbre, somewhat comparable to late 70’s to early 80’s Rob Halford at his most powerful combined with a gutsier, soulful sound of an 80’s American power metal singer like J.D. Kimball (Omen) or Mike Smith (Savage Grace). However his ability to drastically alter his tone within a variety of ranges frequently steals the show. He’s capable of going from a raspy open-throated roar to a soothing croon to an eardrum-piercing shriek and more, giving him a level of versatility like King Diamond or the late Midnight of Crimson Glory and frequently stealing the show even from the amazing riffing.
To go with their powerful repertoire of technique is a saga across 11 parts, each a treat for all disciples of classic metal past. “North Wolves” was cut down from its original nine minute length to six but even harder hitting than it was in 2013. Rather than an elongated intro, it cuts into the skull-splitting downstroke chords immediately but Priest’s hellish shrieks combined with the backing voices add whole new layers of melody, utilizing a wider range and tone to paint colourful, detailed pictures of battle and carnage. New song “Ninefold Muse” opens with a heavily syncopated march of fistpumping riffs under the command of furious rasping shrieks, letting loose in the middle for a feast of pounding cymbal accented carnage. “Warrior Without Fear” and the title cut show a new American style power metal influence though in two different flavours. The first is akin to the beefed up post NWOBHM attack of Battle Cry era Omen or Dark Age, taking the uptempo jogging pace approach of that style and combining it with aggressive singing and meatier rhythmic presence. The second however is somewhat unusual for the album, containing its most articulate phrasing and harmonies, almost hinting at Arch-era Fates Warning and early Queensryche. Gentle clean guitar squares off against a coiling and striking rhythm, balanced out by the backing rhythms disappearing as a hypnotic arpeggiated melody takes the stage. The ensuing guitar solo is also quite elaborate, momentarily going into semi Shrapnel Records territory with its beautifully expressive yet not overwritten shredding. The album’s climax, the eight minute “Oncoming Ice”, is perhaps their finest moment to date (beyond a fadeout ending). Juxtaposing massive doomed riffs harmonized with subtle lead overlays against sustained melancholy single note melodies, it’s a rare moment of the sublime and the beautiful amidst a stormy backdrop. Yet its how the song ends, with all of this pent up melodic tension being explored in a more subdued manner and J. Priest’s voice showing his more soulful side, that concludes the album’s final epic in a darkly introspective manner, using a familiar lead motif to close out the song as it passes into silence.
Time has honed Gatekeeper’s blades to a precise cutting point even as they rework older songs into a fresher form. While listeners who aren’t a fan of the practice might not necessarily enjoy that, it’s hard to deny how well the older tracks benefit from this vibrantly clear production and their new singer’s immensely powerful multi-faceted voice. The newer tracks also show a varied repertoire of influences and approaches to songwriting, capable of bone-breaking visceral delivery or of understated finesse. Gatekeeper’s bandcamp page states “no new shit” and the album lives up to it yet at the same time I would not call this a clone or worship. It’s a distinct voice speaking an ancient language but what it says is not the same as its medium of delivery. Simply put, like Atlantean Kodex they’re undeniably old school as it gets yet at the same time, it’s hard to say they resemble a particular band. Rather, they embody a spirit of a time or rather an idealized version of one, taking the best ideas of past acts and congealing them into a unified force of metallic might. Taught by the gods of olde but wielded by today’s finest, East of Sun might just be the year’s strongest album for heavy metal pure and unblemished so far, finding little competition beyond Visigoth’s Conqueror’s Oath. If you like your heavy metal as pulpy and fire-blooded a much as it is ambitious and heroic, acquiring this debut is mandatory.