Of all the Power Metal albums with a fair share of Progressive elements that have come out this year, or Power Metal releases in general, this is the most fantastic display of songwriting and overall musicianship to grace my ears. The closest thing I could likely compare it to is the highly acclaimed ANGRA opus “Temple Of Shadows”, although even that comparison alone would rob the band of some of its ingenious mixture of HELLOWEEN style Speed Metal with DREAM THEATER’s varied song structures and sectional contrasts. It avoids the overt “Images And Words” worship that has tended to dominate the past couple of PAGAN’S MIND albums, and opts for a less cryptic approach to lyrical subjects and musical themes than ANUBIS GATE or COMMUNIC.
ALKEMYST typify the extremely varied and loosely connected nature of the Power Metal culture of France. Although they sound almost nothing like their more 80s oriented brethren NIGHTMARE or their GAMMA RAY meets STRATOVARIUS contemporaries HEAVENLY, they share a distinctiveness that makes them easily recognizable amongst a sea of mostly HELLOWEEN oriented bands, as well as the many bands now implementing Groove and AOR elements to their sound. Vocalist Roberto Messina sounds a little bit like Andre Matos, but also tends to resemble Progressive Rock front man Rik Emmit of TRIUMPH. The vocal delivery is about as clean as you can get, but it bodes well for a band that plays in a hybrid of two styles known for that approach.
From start to finish this album avoids almost every cliché that encompasses the Power Metal style. The songs are fast, but generally avoid the constant double bass work common to most in the genre. The subjects within the songs are fairly dark, although they are presented in a fashion that sounds pretty triumphant. There are acoustic interludes and tempo changeups all over the place, and there is very little keyboard presence to speak of. The riffs tend to be fairly standard, the thematic material is definitely accessible and catchy, but the overall presentation is highly varied. The guitar solos, in particular, refuse to fully conform to the sweep picking/patterned sequenced approach common to Timo Tolkki and Luca Turilli, and often employs a good deal of Rock and Blues elements. Sometimes I think I’m hearing VISION DIVINE or LABYRINTH style Power/Progressive Metal but without the synthesizers, and at others it sounds like a more elaborate version of VIPER back when Andre Matos was still at the helm.
Instead of starting out with the typical short instrumental homage to MAIDEN’s “The Ides Of March” or some neo-classical/symphonic prelude, the opening song, “The Beast Within”, prefaces itself with a distant church bell chime and a short atmospheric set of Gregorian Chants. What follows is essentially a more Power Metal oriented version of what might be heard on a SYMPHONY X or ADAGIO release, but with minimal keyboard presence. The lead guitar attack on here is nothing short of wicked, occasionally sounding like Roland Grapow used to on HELLOWEEN’s mid-90s material. Naturally like any progressive outfit, these musicians aren’t content to spend nearly 7 minutes just doing Speed Metal, and go into this very gloomy sounding acoustic passage that at first sounds out of place, but after a couple listens makes its purpose felt and augments the song tremendously.
Every song that follows basically continues the same winning formula with a few slight variations. The shorter songs on here such as “Enter The Carnival” and “The Grand Illusions” take fewer liberties with the tempo changes and present a straightforward melodic shockwave of speed and fury with plenty of wild lead guitar detailing to make Kai Hansen tip his hat to this outfit. The long ones like “When The Morning Comes” and “Restless Show” definitely go more in the DREAM THEATER direction, occasionally referring to fast and upper mid-tempo sections, but largely relying on sectional development and elaborate ideas to keep things interesting. The one thing that remains constant throughout is the continuing practice of keeping the guitar work at the forefront, rather than having the keyboards or the vocals hog the entire stage. Choruses are powerful and memorable, but the songs are not written around them the way they often tend to be with a lot of German and Finnish Power Metal bands.
The biggest surprise this album holds, however, is the brilliant performance of the famed HELLOWEEN classic “Eagle Fly Free”. I’ve heard dozens of HELLOWEEN covers done by a wide variety of Power Metal bands from several countries, each one of them a unique variation that brought out the individual attributes of each band. This is probably the only case where I think a Power Metal band not only paid perfect homage to the original, but actually outdid the band and made the song better. Part of it is the stellar production on this album, but Roberto Messina’s vocals actually outclass Michael Kiske’s in terms of raw emotion and quality of harmonization between the multiple voice tracks. The bass solo and the guitar solos have a much more aggressive tone to them, while simultaneously flowing with a smoothness that gives the appearance of effortlessness. It definitely outclasses VISION DIVINE’s cover of the song, which utilized a lot of keyboards and included the “Initiation” intro to the 2nd "Keepers" album along with it, and I’d even go so far as to say that it even outdoes DARK MOOR’s famed reinterpretation of “Halloween”.
If you decide to part with monetary wealth for only one Power Metal album before the close of 2008, this is the one to get. Whether you’re a fan of the entire Power Metal genre or merely the progressive oriented variety that’s been put out by the likes of ANGRA, ADAGIO, PAGAN’S MIND and COMMUNIC, this is the album to get. It exhibits a lot more of the classic Metal characteristics of the older Power Metal style first pioneered in the early to mid 80s, and it is a far more aggressive listen overall, so there might be some crossover appeal to older fans of bands like AGENT STEEL and CRIMSON GLORY. This is the kind of stuff that was being pumped out like crazy between 2001 and 2004, but unfortunately has become a bit scarcer in the past 2 or 3 years.
(Online September 9, 2008)