Review: Battleroar – Codex Epicus
Does Codex Epicus evoke a powerful Battleroar or a meagre Battlesnore? Sepulcrustacean plunges his steel into the heart of the beast to discover the answer.
Battleroar is a band that isn’t particularly well known outside of the circle of metalheads firmly entrenched in the world of 80’s and primarily American style pulpy heavy metal that in recent years has slowly opened up to less underground-savvy audiences. Eternal Champion, Visigoth, Gatekeeper, Solstice (UK), Atlantean Kodex, and various other names have slowly been turning the metal public onto the idea of “epic heavy metal”, a gutsy and sometimes unusual style that even in the 80’s never became huge with Manowar as the only band most can name from that era. It’s remained a cult classic style for the spikes and leather crowd even if the number of practitioners isn’t particularly high or sometimes just the older riffy American-style power metal that coexisted with the style.
Battleroar were one of the first latter day practitioners, having debuted in 2003 and remained a cult name mostly to Greek crowds and people who have original pressing vinyls of the 80’s Manilla Road catalogue (there’s a surprising degree of overlap), but never really garnered much of an audience in spite of their ability to bring forth some of the meatiest riffs in the style while downplaying some of the more eccentric aspects of the genre that can make it difficult for newcomers to get past. Even after signing onto Cruz Del Sur, they haven’t grabbed much attention but this year, their fifth album has landed after a four-year wait. They’re going up against the first five bands named this year, far from easy competition but with their impressive resume of colossal songwriting and raw battle-ready bravado, can they match these fellow barbarians vying for the throne?
The sound these Greeks bring to the table this year is a notable change of pace from the power/speed direction they seemed dead set on 2008’s To Death and Beyond… and 2014’s Blood of Legends. Whereas those albums focused on an immediately pulverizing approach that could go blow to blow with both mid 80’s Helstar and Walls of Jericho era Helloween, Codex Epicus sees them investing in a more sombre and processional mid-paced sound semi-reminiscent of their first two albums, putting less of an emphasis on axe-swinging bloodlust as much as grandiose songwriting and hefty chordal riffs slamming against defiant vocal patterns like waves of raiding hordes trying to cut down Conan the Barbarian. Raw concussive impact has been traded for humungous broad-stroke melodies taking full advantage of singer Gerrit Mutz’s charismatic snarl and what the rhythms lack in velocity or tenacity has been traded in for a sense of Manowar esque arrogant stride and confidence. While it isn’t quite as crushing production wise as their prior two, the shift in focus gives it a sense of grandeur akin to some warlord chieftain giving a rousing speech to his murderous hordes before they pillage a golden city.
This means that while it is fairly riff-driven and bold, fearless metal it’s also not really quite as immediate as you might think. The riffs don’t surge with power as much as they march with a sense of grim determination, making it by far Battleroar’s slowest album. The emphasis on riffs marching lockstep with simple, thudding drumming before exploding into choir-backed choruses is a considerably more modern touch and one that even vaguely reminds of more conventional power metal. Granted, influences from that style were present even on the last album but here it feels more forced. The rhythms that form the backbone of much of these songs often lack the violently propulsive motions that were their trademark of their recent albums and the melodies they convey are relying more and more on Gerrit’s voice that while still superior to anything he has done in his main band Sacred Steel, highlight the deficiencies the rest of the album faces with the shadows it casts. Many of the choruses mostly highlight him, the rest of the band chipping in with some fairly stock backing efforts to further make his impressive voice shine. Sure, everything feels bigger than ever before in scope, but also more distant and lacking the convincing sense of momentum and weight they had mastered before.
However they aren’t bad choruses per se and neither are the songs. The problem is that most of them fall into a very similar mold to one another; when every track is the march of the Picts to the gates of shining Aquilonian cities over and over again, you kind of start wishing the Picts would just finish pillaging and burning the damn things already. And this pillaging-and-burning business doesn’t really have a whole lot of structural deviations or sudden surprises in songwriting to really make it feel more than a fairly rote, almost automated procedure. The first four songs (excluding the intro) all feel like they were more or less based on one particular song, “We Shall Conquer”, that while decent with its stompy opening riffs battling an early semi-chorus before giving way to a deluge of soloing isn’t something I’d want to hear a whole album’s worth of or even half. “Kings of Old” does shake things up a bit by ditching the plod for an Omen style foray into speedier territory and this time its choirs-and-bigass-choruses approach works far better simply because the rest of the song back them up with enough energy to really make the stadium-raising payoff moments truly worth it. Even then, it falls short of the own bar they set on the last album, feeling almost like a potential reissue b-side that ended up here.
Truthfully, the direction they chose for this album is somewhat confusing. On one hand, they wanted some of the more gradual and “atmospheric” songwriting of the first two albums but also the streamlining of Blood of Legends but ultimately, the latter won out. You’ll still hear the mark of the first two in the pacing and its slower approach to riffing and pacing, but the attempts to subtly interpret classic Manowar practices from a power metal perspective results in an awkward fit that wants to be humungous but without being particularly substantial. Hopefully this will just be a one-off experiment as whatever promise is present isn’t anything you can’t find on their last four albums and with a less supressed, muffled production job to boot. For now, you’re better off with Gatekeeper’s debut or Visigoth’s sophomore if you want the perfect soundtrack to decapitating cult leaders and slaying titanic flesh-scourging beasts in forgotten temples.
2.5 out of 5 Flaming Toilets.