It still strikes me as somewhat odd that a band from Italy has such a borderline obsession with ancient Greece in their lyrics. HOLY MARTYR from Milan is the band that I am talking about and I received their 2007 album “Still At War” and their 2008 follow-up at the same time, so don’t be surprised to find some striking similarities in the introduction for both reviews. Founded in 1994 they are veterans of the Italian scene already and while still staying within the epic regions of Heavy/Power Metal, they are probably as far removed from the RHAPSODY (OF FIRE) pomp as they can be. Instead of generating the epicness through keyboard cascades and orchestral extravagancies, HOLY MARTYR are a lot more down to earth and aptly live out the war-inspired lyrics through a different kind of epic atmosphere.
“Legion’s Oath (March Of The Legionaries)” acts as intro with a Latin oath and then a rhythm that sets the spirit for battle, seamlessly moving into the first full track “Vis Et Honor” (“Strength And Honour”), which might sound a little dry to the fans of the archetypical Italian Power Metal, but definitely has a lot of character through its unpolished approach. Alex Mereu is not a highflyer of a singer, but has this heroic timbre swinging in his voice, while the choirs are used sparsely and only to serve the song and its atmosphere without ever turning into the focal point of the track. There definitely is an 80s vibe hanging in the air, as the Italians don’t try to be flashy in any way, which might very well already define the potential listenership.
“Warmonger” is the first track that accelerates the tempo, going with the more aggressive lyrics, but that does not mean that the song is one-dimensional, far from it, as the band continuously varies the tempo (no, they are not getting progressive) to give the song excellent dynamics, something many bands seem to be unable to do these days, which comes to fore again in the more than 10 minute long “Hatred Is My Strength”, which actually has a flow to it instead of relying on repetition to get to its track length. Despite bringing variety into the compositions, HOLY MARTYR’s approach to the genre is surely more basic and at times almost simplistic compared to many other bands, but that does in no way mean that it takes away from the strength of the song writing, because in cases such as this it can be far harder to keep the listener’s attention over a full album, as you do not have as many elements you can meddle with.
Surely for some the mostly mid-paced tempo of “Still At War” might be a detraction to some, but at the same time it still fits the epic nature of the lyrics, I mean, would “Hadding Garmsson (Son Of A King)” work as well, if it did not have this measured, slow rhythm at the beginning? And the acceleration in the middle adds spice and energy, this is supposed to sound epic and it does, so “form follows function”, if you don’t want to add layers of keyboards and whatnot to achieve this, great song!
“Still At War” is nothing for the pomp fans, but who has a weakness for the epic stuff from the Eighties and can live with a relatively dry production and a more basic approach to the genre, will love HOLY MARTYR, point blank!
(Online January 3, 2009)