Mastercastle - Wine Of Heaven - (8/10)
Published on March 13, 2019
The proliferation of sub-genres within metal has become so massive over the past few decades that it is often the subject of mockery, yet even with over a dozen labels designating a certain stylistic niche and counting, confusion can often arise given that even a specific label like power metal can fail to fully capture the essence of what is being attempted. In power metal’s peculiar case, it hasn’t helped that the style’s popularity throughout the 2000s led to a number of further developments in sound that led such wildly divergent bands like Edguy and Pharaoh being under the same stylistic moniker. In keeping with this, it isn’t terribly surprising that someone looking for high-impact speed metal proclivities in line with the style’s European roots via Helloween or maybe a somewhat more thrashing and riff-oriented approach in line with the 80s USPM sound would approach a band like Italy’s Mastercastle with a certain degree of incredulity. Putting aside their status as a female-fronted outfit, which isn’t really helpful in itself given that they don’t carry the overt symphonic pomp of Nightwish and Delain or even the Gothic tendencies of Lacuna Coil and Within Temptation, the greatest indicator of where this band’s unique approach falls is the involvement of virtuoso guitarist Pier Gonella, who’s various projects and short involvement with Labyrinth indicates a heavily prog-leaning tendency, which is further echoed by this band’s long time association with Lion Music.
Arguably the best way to approach this band’s 2017 LP Wine Of Heaven and all the Dionysian vibes it gives off is as an album that is geared more heavily towards atmosphere and accessibility while still highlighting Gonella’s amazing technical abilities as a soloist. Consequently, the overall demeanor of this band’s rhythm section tends to be extremely basic, often bordering on a groovy rocking character that is a tad more adventurous than Within Temptation, but similarly geared towards highlighting the angelic vocals of Giorgia Gueglio while still allowing for a Vai and Malmsteen infused shred fest to chime in at regular intervals. The resulting formula involves a mostly mid-tempo and occasionally slow and subdued formula that almost borders on radio rock, while the keyboard backdrop tends to be extremely dense and the riff work that Gonella brings into the mix ranges from a low-trudging rhythmic groove to occasional prog-leaning quirky gimmicks that might remind one of a number of iconic Pagan’s Mind riffs. This approach plays well into Gueglio’s unique voice, which has a similarly sweet character to that of Sharon Den Adel, but has more of a timbre that reminds of Norwegian pop/electronica vocalist Susanne Sundfør and melds together like the latter’s one-off collaboration with M83 for the theme song to that cliche Sci-Fi flick Oblivion starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman.
For most power metal fans who weren’t crazy about the more toned down AOR variant that became popularized during the second half of the 2000s and similarly inclined to enjoy the lighter, female-fronted Gothic sound that ran parallel to it for a while, there are few songs on here that carry any degree of immediately impact. The somewhat quirky, tonally manipulated riff work on “Drink Of Me” and “Wine Of Heaven” might give an occasional boost to anyone nostalgic for Pagan Mind’s Celestial Entrance, but there isn’t really any sort of climactic apex that these songs build towards, but more of a straight-line song meant to invoke a sense of longing. Somewhat quicker but still largely mid-paced anthems such as “Enlightenment”, “Space Variations” and “Hot As Blood” rock a little bit harder, but still maintain a uniform pace and apart from a wild guitar solo section that meshes rapid runs and expressive whammy bar noise, carry little in the way of surprises. Basically the format here is a somewhat lighter, less symphonic and overtly Mid-Eastern influenced take on where Ignea went with The Sign Of Faith. The only divergence from this approach is the beautiful guitar-oriented rendition of the classic 80s anime theme “Castle In The Sky” that sees Gonella putting on his melodic, Joe Satriani hat for a change, and a spellbinding rendition of Malmsteen’s “Making Love”, featuring him tearing up the fret board as crazily as the original while Gueglio’s voice takes on a slightly more attitude-oriented and very fitting persona to provide a feminine interpretation of a lusting heart.
It might be a cop-out, but this is one of those album’s where taste is a deciding factor in how it works for anyone approaching it for the first time. It definitely holds an array of auditory treats for anyone already predisposed to enjoying the softer side of the power metal equation, and it also has a fair degree of appeal for shred enthusiasts who tend to eat up the instrumental, guitar oriented releases that Lion Music offers in spades. Admittedly this is a somewhat small circle even within the more melodic side of the sub-genre in Europe, and a non-existent one for anyone who associates the style immediately with the thrashing character of the US scene or the more riff obsessed and rugged sound associated with German outfits like Iron Savior and Primal Fear. One might even be tempted to argue that this isn’t really a proper power metal album in the stylistic sense, though even attaching the power/prog label to it would invite comparisons to higher impact bands also hailing from Itally such as Vision Divine and Secret Sphere. It’s sort of off in its own little world, straddling the line between an extremely light version of 80s metal and the latter 2000s power metal variant spearheaded by Magnus Karlsson’s various projects. It’s good for what it is, though it’s definitely not for everyone.