Sunrunner - Ancient Arts of Survival - (8.5/10)
Published on November 2, 2018
Genre:Progressive Heavy Metal / Hard Rock
Few genres have seen paradigm shifts as drastic as that of the somewhat ambiguously defined domain of progressive metal. Initially beginning as a more refined continuation of the American school of power metal, it gained a reputation as a highly melancholic and even theatrical form of metal with bands like Fates Warning, Queensryche, Crimson Glory, Voivod, and Watchtower being strong examples. As the 90’s dawned, it would see a paradigm shift in the coinciding with the renaissance of the progressive rock genre, in particular the so called neo-prog branch associated with IQ and Marillion, resulting in bands like Shadow Gallery, Dream Theater, Ice Age (USA), and Savatage. This would continue into the 2000’s until another more recent shift began giving us the stutter-chug “djent” movement becoming currently its public face. Sunrunner don’t really fall into any of these categories and in fact, their status as a metal band is only fairly recent. Originally beginning in the vein of 70’s style psych/prog in 2008, 2015 saw them absorbing a higher degree of influence from various 80’s metal styles and this year, they’ve made the full transition. While the band doesn’t see themselves as progressive metal (according to their FB page) and it’s understandable as to why, to me this simply sounds like a type of progressive metal that doesn’t fall into any of the previously described categories. This is certainly oldschool in aesthetic and execution yet at the same time, it is miles away from a rehash and if anything, is a reimagining of how the genre could have turned out.
Sunrunner’s sound while definitely metal, is still very 70’s sounding in its execution. The energetic swiping riffs and charismatic soaring vocals of the first solidified wave of NWOBHM bands is present yet it’s combined with the nuanced instrumental interplay and slightly folksy harmonies of the more technical acts that preceded them. It legitimately sounds like it could have been released sometime between 1980 and 1984 albeit with a considerably more professional production job. Much of the prowess associated with the progressive term is here but it avoids the staggered pause-and-go rhythms and noodling showmanship it has come to be stereotyped by. The lead playing frequently steals the show, taking Thin Lizzy esque swirling patterns and filtering them through the stringency of the more aggressive end of early heavy/power/speed metal. Frequently they cap off or serve as riffing itself, weaving breathtaking patterns through carefully phrased harmonies. As for the riffing, carefully measured is how I’d describe it. There’s little palm muted force and more of a galloping energy akin to 70’s Judas Priest and early Iron Maiden, interspersed with open and spacious Rush-style chords. Vocals in the meantime are a lovable, gutsy midrange bellow with a strong timbre and a distinctly rocking sense of swagger. It’s by and far the most fun part of their sound, giving the music an enthusiastic rollicking vibe that belies the finesse involved with moments of throaty grit and others of cleanly executed and carefully lilting expression, carefully suiting himself to a song’s needs first and foremost.
As befitting of a band who aims for a more eclectic and oddly defined period of metal (even in a genre as openly defined as prog), the songs travel across a variety of traditions and practices capturing that turn-of-the-decade atmosphere in how it bridged two different eras, each with their own distinct identity. After a charming semi-Jethro Tull reminiscent intro comprised of clean guitar and flute, the album opens up with a catchy Saxon-esque trotting riff with a slight bluesy vibe over a sturdy Geezer Butler esque bassline. They proudly flaunt their rockier side alongside the more metallic one but even compared to many early 80’s acts (or those described as worshipping them), it never really feels disingenuous or incoherent, held together their raw enthusiasm and colourful technique. “The Scout” is more definite where it stands, going into semi speed metal territory with rapid cutting lead exchanges over a hard-hitting verse riff yet still finds moments of respite where they can slot in smooth and expressionist melodies including its heartfelt chorus.
“Palaver” demonstrates their skills in mellower form, its gently unfurling opening harmonies deftly augmented by subtle touches of drumming and soothingly smooth singing before it makes a transition to a powerfully sombre metallic hymn, restraining itself just enough to let the desperation and gloom shine through its newfound energy. The album’s main jawdropper is its nearly 20-minute closing number, “Stalking Wolf”. It’s a slow burner in an almost Sabotage era Black Sabbath way, picking up momentum and depth in the shadow of ominous broad strokes of dense riffs. The advent of a clean interlude also marks a notable shift in its direction, bringing forth gradual changes in underlying themes, hitting a high point in a synth-choir backed portion featuring some amazing higher-range singing. Another interlude, folkier in nature, gives way to a powerful crescendo where they unleash their metallic fury with a rousing battle-ready set of riffs, letting harmonized vocals orate the electrifying sense of growing power that hits its apex in the album’s final, scorching solo before one soaring chorus brings it to a fulfilling conclusion.
Clocking in a little over an hour, Sunrunner’s Ancient Arts of Survival gives you quite a bit of bang for your back with its whimsical adventures across futuristic landscapes and the storied history of both early heavy metal and late progressive rock. Whereas the majority of throwback style bands today tend to settle on clearly defined and standardized forms of the oldschool music they long for, Sunrunner are refreshing in how they dwell in the ambiguity of a time before the boundaries had been fully cemented. They are the best example of neo-traditional metal/rock, arguably as dyed in the wool as they come yet with a distinct voice of their own free from “retro” or “clone” associations. Rather than trying to make an authentic recreation of an idealized time, they instead choose to tell an alternate history of what could have been, sidestepping conventions of the classic and the modern entirely. It’s a reminder of the possibilities still open in styles many have foolishly written off as antiquated and dated but for bands like Sunrunner, these valleys, streams, and caves still hold untold stories and mystery.