Twisted Tower Dire - Wars in the Unknown - (8/10)
Published on April 11, 2019
Twisted Tower Dire are one of the all-time legends of heavy metal. Starting in 1995, the Virginian band boldly flew the flag of true metal (American style power metal in their case) in a time when the immediate descendants of NWOBHM had overwhelmingly gone out of fashion and ever since then have remained unrepentant disciples of the 80’s, joining bands like Skullview, Deceased, Root, and even Manilla Road in refusing to bend to the “hard music” (audible coughing here) trends of the time. It would be a mistake to say they are a clone of the legends before them. For years they crafted and hone high-flying lead focused variant of United States (style) Power Metal that handled the tricky job of honouring your predecessors yet finding one’s own voice. Sadly, their own legendary vocalist, Tony Taylor, would meet a tragic end in 2010 due to a motorcycle incident but a year later, Johnny Aune (also the singer of Walpyrgus), would replace him on Make It Dark albeit to rather mixed results. Warp forward eight years and they’ve returned in a slimmer, concise package that signifies a massive change of scope and style as well as Johnny’s second spot. Those looking for the glory days of The Isle of Hydra or Crest of the Martyrs might be disappointed but don’t mistake a change of style for a loss of the same quality that always defined them.
Wars in the Unknown does arguably cut down on the epic songwriting that had been a staple of their sound since their inception and the result is certainly a simpler, slimmer beast. Yet don’t go thinking this is some Hammerfall or Sonata Arctica fare. What they lose in grandeur is compensated with forcefulness and immediacy with their hallmark melodic guitar work and triumphant choruses now hitting faster and more directly than ever before. This puts them closer to the often barbaric power metal of American bands from the first half of the 80’s like Omen, Griffin, Exxplorer, Dark Age, Assailant, and Warlord. However they are somewhat more contemporary in terms of the emphasis on further streamlined riffing and a somewhat stronger emphasis on their vocal presence, not anywhere to the same degree as Helloween and their many descendants but as somewhat of a parallel line of evolution.
Like the former group, they have a muscular approach to riffing best described as what would happen when the original disciples of NWOBHM wanted to hit harder but didn’t want to invest in the hardcore punk influences that lead to thrash. Lots of agile and frequently galloping power chords appear, occasionally laced with more specifically picked melodies woven through to contrast the battle-ready march of these rhythms. They partially counterpoint and mostly harmonize with Johnny’s radiantly enthusiastic voice, bringing more of a high-flying howl than Tony’s smoother midrange. He’s the real star of the show and for many likely the make-it-or-break-it aspect of the band as tone has a slightly shrieky and rough nature to its timbre. For some that might sound a bit clumsy and for others it might add a good deal of grit though this reviewer is generally with the second of these interpretations.
Subsequently, the songwriting doesn’t pull any punches either and the band gives you the basic ideas that comprise their sound in their most anthemic stadium-raising way. Whereas the prior albums did show a tendency towards making their approach more and more direct starting with the sophomore, it reaches what might be its apex here. The lengthier six plus minute epics from their older material are completely absent for the first time in their career, now remaining in a four to five minute range. As said before the songs are more immediate and also notably heavier on big rowing almost Manowar-esque stompy moments like “A Howl in the Wind”, “True North”, and “And The Sharks Came Then”.
However the major standouts are when they go full throttle firepower like on “The Thunderer”, “Eons Beyond”, and “Tear You Apart”. This new approach of theirs is tailor made best for these moments of sheer intensity with Johnny’s voice capable of some impressive gymnastics that goes perfectly well with slicing-dicing power metal riffs. This isn’t to say the slower moments are terrible as much as they can start to blur into one another after a while, the album’s main shortcoming. Sometimes they feel like they need more of the eclecticism and sudden energy that helped define many of their stronger moments in the past. However as a whole the narrower focus does overall mean the songs in general don’t come off as individualized as before. While this doesn’t consume the album as a weakness, it does mean its formula can grow a little tired by the time you’re over halfway through.
In spite of that, it’s a welcome return after the somewhat rushed sounding Make it Dark and it has done away with the doubts of Johnny being a proper fit for Twisted Tower Dire. While I’d advise them to bring back more of the daring compositions that made them legends in the first place, I’d also like to see them indulge more in the sheer high energy tenacity they’ve now made clear is well within their ballpark. The idea of seeing Twisted Tower Dire in the same category as the more speed or even thrash metal oriented members of 80’s USPM like Liege Lord, Sacred Oath, Attacker, Helstar, Metal Church, Hexx, Forte, and Oliver Magnum during 1986 to 1992 or even something more over the top like Apollo Ra and debut era Sanctuary sounds kind of odd at first. However with a bit more punch to the guitar work and fully taking advantage of Johnny’s infectiously enthralling energy, they could really hit the jackpot again like they had on their classic run with Tony. While it doesn’t quite hit all of the same marks as longtime fans might have hoped, it’s a still a solid slab of molten classic metal might and it hints at a number of new possibilities that their slimmer, tighter, meaner sound is open for.