2019 Roundup: Heavy Metal
The year’s just finished, and the batch of bands and/or albums I was meant to talk about months ago has nearly run dry. So here’s a smattering of power/heavy/trad metal and hard rock-styled releases that extremely loosely tie together in a mass of short reviews! Today, we’re looking at the latest from Chalice, Black Sites, Tanith, Running Wild, Galactic Protector & Stormwarrior
Chalice – Silver Cloak
An up’n’coming trio from Finland found by two former Ranger axemen, Verner Benjamin Pouttu and Mikael Cristian Haavisto, the former of whom also handles the vocals, and Satan’s Fall bassist Joni Adrian Petander. They put out a demo in 2017 to seemingly very little attention, despite some suitably rough and melodic heavy metal of a very infectious nature, but managed to catch the attention of High Roller Records who’ve now put out their label debut, the Silver Cloak EP. The opening title track is a surprisingly laid back 3 ½-minuter centered around its catchy chorus; at first I found it a mild disappointment that the band had failed to build upon the foundation laid by the demo, rather reiterating on its promises and weaknesses, but the 8-minute B-side, “Parallel Path” did a better job reeling me in, and though their vocal-led, mellow heavy metal is still missing that “something,” I remain carefully optimistic about their future.
Black Sites – Exile
I loved Trials‘ This Ruined World. Even though I don’t come back to it with much regularity, every time I do, I’m reminded of all the reasons why I fell in love with it in the first place. Needless to say I was disheartened to learn the band came to an end quickly on the heels of that record. Equally as needless to say I was excited to learn of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Mark Sugar’s new band Black Sites. Instead of the raw, riff-heavy and even adventurous modern thrash metal that had ruled Trials, Black Sites featured a more melodic and hooky sound inspired by traditional heavy metal, but with quite a lot of riffing that owed much to later, more extreme forms of metal.
Tied together by a decidedly modern-sounding production, In Monochrome didn’t sound very much like a trad metal band, despite having one of its legs firmly lodged in there, but not evoking the thoughts most people seem to jump to when they hear the words “modern” and “metal” put together. It was a fantastic record, one that I had on repeat for a few days. But that’s the thing: I quickly set it aside and when Sugar’s death metal band Bear Mace dropped their debut and I ended up digging In Monochrome back up, I felt I was greeting an old friend I hadn’t seen in a very long time, despite there being barely a month between the two releases. A testament for a hectic time in my life perhaps, but not something that can be separated from the album either. And while I remained carefully excited for Exile, now featuring another Trials guitarist, Ryan Bruchert, things got off to a bad start when the desire to revisit it after the initial spin in April failed to materialize until I began to type this review.
Still a heavy metal album at its core, but a heavy metal album in 2019, decisively, Exile features all the throwbacks to glory days you never lived (and have chosen to mythologize) that you could possibly want amidst the grooves, chugs and hooks from much later eras. Often avoiding the most straightforward routes, Exile‘s songs aren’t afraid to take their time, twisting and turning and making themselves all the more memorable for it. Many of them also have a distinct feature that separates them from the others and works as a direct reference to other bands’ work. For example, opener “The Night They Came for You” has a remarkably Sound of White Noise-esque chorus and “Focused Totality – The Psychic Knife” flirts with Voivod more than a little , but Black Sites has a tight enough grip on their songwriting that it doesn’t become a mish-mash of influences from here and there. Topped with a snappier guitar sound and a slightly refined vocal performance, Exile is a stronger record than its predecessor on practically every front, but I cannot keep myself from worrying it will fall victim to the same fate its predecessor did.
Running Wild – Crossing the Blades
From their first two rougher speed metal records, through the introduction of piracy and a refined style on Under Jolly Roger and the explosion of whirlwind tremolo riffs and melodic mastery on subsequent records, Running Wild managed a streak of consistency very few others, if any, have. Formed in the mid-70’s as Granite Hearts and changing their name in ’79, it wasn’t until 1998’s The Rivalry, which still contained a fair amount of rock ‘n Rolfing goodness, that the diminishing results began to take their toll on the quality (even if it could be argues that Masquerade already suffered from a lack of any actual gold nuggets, it wasn’t until The Rivalry that Running Wild, by then, more accurately, Rolf & Co., started having actively bad songs). By that time Running Wild had been around much too long (becoming an institution of sorts) to actually quit while they were ahead, and the last decade of the band’s activity was marred by increasingly terrible records.
Rolf Kasparek tried focusing on a new hard rock project, Giant-X, with Peter Jordan before deciding to reform Running Wild a mere two years after their final appearance. The following two records, before the introduction of drummer Michael Wolpers, didn’t manage to deviate from the poor quality of the band’s other work after the turn of the millennia, and sounded parsed together half from material written by a tepid Running Wild band, and half from Giant-X leftovers (the project managed to squeeze out one bad album before entering hibernation). While 2016’s Rapid Foray wasn’t The Second Coming of Mr. Jesus H. Christ, nor free of its predecessor’s shortcomings, it did begin to turn the ship around, and so, for the first time in 20 years, Crossing the Blades comes with some expectations.
The opening title track, the best the EP has to offer, is your average, mildly Celtic-flavoured, double bass-driven Running Wild piece, while “Stargazed” and especially “Ride on the Wild Side” fall on the tired side of the spectrum. Round it out with a pointless note-for-note cover of Kiss‘ “Strutter” and you have a decent at best EP that serves as a reminder of Running Wild’s existence and hopes to whet the appetite for a new album supposedly arriving sometime 2020.
Tanith – In Another Time
After some fairly laid back soloing, opener “Citadel (Galantia Pt. 1)” settles for riffing extremely reminiscent of the British heavy metal legends Satan, if they were a dreamy hard rock band. And that should come as no surprise given that it’s Mr. Russ Tippins himself on guitars and vocals, though he shares the latter duty with bassist Cindy Maynard, a decision that works extremely well and gives Tanith some extra character. While the rest of the album follows more or less in suit, the dreamy hard rock becomes often more pronounced and the Satan-like riffing less so, which I would say is a good thing considering this is a separate band. Besides the two vocalists, both a pleasure for the ears, and dueting on each song, a separating and balanced mix makes In Another Time a treat to listen to; it’s also teeming with tasteful leads and Maynard’s intent on not being left behind an inch. The best rock album besides Gygax to come out in 2019.
Stormwarrior – Norsemen
Born in 1998, Stormwarrior shat out a a smattering of demos, EP’s and full-lengths of traditional German, more than a little early Helloween/Running Wild sounding, super-fun heavy metal like the unstoppable machine that they were. From the rough ‘n raw Heavy Metal Fire, through the marvelously catchy self-titled debut and an excellent sophomore in Northern Rage, to the logic-defyingly consistent Heading Northe, nothing could stop them from spreading their message of metal and excess use of the letter “e.” Well, unless we count the lack of coverage and big labels that weren’t the most helpful in gathering a following. But their records were so extremely alike that when they dropped Heathen Warrior in 2011, and it wasn’t as good as its predecessors, my interest in the band quickly dwindled as I figured I already had so much of a good thing I didn’t need more of the same if it wasn’t going to be up to par. I was wrong. But I’m glad that I was, because otherwise I would have discovered Thunder & Steele, their most blatantly Early Hansen inspired, possibly most outrageously boneheaded fun they’ve ever put to tape when it dropped and would have had to impatiently wait for Norsemen to drop for five fucking years instead of two.
And Norsemen continues to deliver to goodness with speed metal double-bass rhythms, Lars Ramcke’s best Kai Hansen imitation and all the melodic leads you could possibly ever want from a speed metal band. At 50 minutes, filled with little variety and pacing, Norsemen is much too long for its own good, but also good enough to counter most of the issue. Oh yes, fatigue sets in before you’re at the end, but the little differences between songs are placed in just the right spots. After the duo of “Norsemen (We Are)” and “Storm of The North” open the record exactly as you’d expect them to, “Freeborn” treats you to an Iron Maiden-like gallop and “Shield Wall” shifts gear to a thrash riff right before “Sword of Vahalla,” a closer responsible for over 11 minutes of the albums run-time. And though there’s not always enough meat on the epic’s bones to warrant such a length it does a fine enough job that on a shorter record it might not feel like such an undertaking. Despite its shortcomings, Norsemen is great fun for any lover of the German speed/power tradition.