Review: Owlbear – Chaos To The Realm
It is always nice to be blindsided when writing reviews, especially in a genre often reliant on old timer veterans and hyped-up label darlings. Metal is after all a genre that prides itself on a strong underground presence but the rise of specialist labels and social media arguably has dimmed much of the mystique that used to shroud it in the ’80s and ’90s. Surprises are not absent but they are harder to come by yet when Owlbear reared its burly bulk a month ago, I took interest quickly. I was already aware of bassist Leona Howard’s excellent bass skills in Weaponlord but admittedly Jeff Taft’s cast-iron riffing and the piercing voice of Katy Scary I cannot say I am as acquainted with. The former’s stint in the recent Euro-style power act Adamantis and the latter’s nearly two decade long run of releases under her own name and Klaymore did not prepare me at all for the arrival of this rampaging beast of iron. As it should; after all, what is the best kind of metal discovery but the hidden classic you were not expecting?
Like the mammalian/avian hybrid on its cover, Chaos to the Realm makes itself known as a destructive force off the bat. Catchy high-energy riffing is punctuated by thick bass tone, set to the accusatory and piercing tone of Katy, resulting in a combo that is familiar at heart and easy to get. Nary an ounce of prog or any ambiguity sullies this beast’s claws but they are kept lethal by a mixture of raucous hooks and weighty, hard-hitting delivery. It is easy to make a variety of ’80s metal comparisons but those of a more Germanic origin ring particularly true. Specifically, Running Wild’s triumphant melodicism comes to the forefront particularly for its most aggressive numbers, even if I would not call this full-on power metal. Leona’s ever-present basslines evoke their ex-bassist Jens Becker, striking a balance between pushing to the centre stage and muscling into the background. Although they are from the ’90s, Twisted Tower Dire’s Wars in the Unknown is another good comparison, with a similarly anthemic and immediately gripping approach as well as a high-energy singer belting out fantastically pulpy tales.
Although simple at heart, Owlbear’s strength lies in the vicious attack of each member. Jeff’s riffing starts off the album with a catchy Maiden-esque kind of agility but he quickly demonstrates himself capable of lumbering bruisers like the almost epic metal “Iuz the Old”, even switching to a faster speed metal portion in its second half with a neat descending melodic pattern. “Cult of the Hidden Serpent” has a looser ’80s American style power metal verse riff, heavy on the broad strokes of lethal strum and invigorating in its almost rollicking energy. It is the sort of primal might fit to trade blows with Flight of the Griffin or March of the Saint. Yet it is “Voyage of the Wraith” with the sort of wave-breaking energy that really shows his knack for triumphant melody not just on his part but also Leona’s excellent ear for bass-sorcery. The Steve Harris style punchy gallop duelling with the riffing is one thing but it is the undulating pre-chorus harmony before doubling down for the crowd-lifting chorus with a series of hammering, tasteful accents that really demonstrates her might. Even when she is not as flashy, the shadowing motion and careful emphasis of her various basslines add a lot of not just vigour but additional melody to Jeff’s already muscular and well-rounded axe-slinging.
Katy is just as deserving of attention. I am admittedly not familiar with her own work but I’m going out on a limb to assume this is a pretty damn good tangent. I cannot quite think of who I would compare her to; piercing as a shriek, youthful in its tone, yet with a bristling and almost venomous character. Every line sung almost feels at once fanciful yet frequently threatening. Perhaps some of this is her more death/black/thrash background creeping in but it is refreshing to hear a singer that even with this pristine production has a gnarly, raw edge to themselves tempered by near-vengeful melody. Feel the sheer menace she snakes about with on the verses of “Fall on your Sword” or with “Steel At My Side” the way she stretches her notes on the chorus, carrying its primary melody even as she gives us a rare moment of somewhat toning down the intensity. I am almost reminded of something along the lines of Kai Hansen on Helloween’s Walls of Jericho, taking that rowdy and rough approach only to refine it with understated technical capability that does not compromise the tenacity.
With all of this in mind, the greatest strength of this album is not its satisfying immediacy but rather its consistency. No ballad tracks, cheap hard rocky singles, acoustic escapades, intros, interludes or outros. Some might criticize a lack of variety but when backed up by musicians that honed in this style there is no issue. It is not as if these songs do not have their own individual charms as prior paragraphs have made clear. You can almost start in the middle of any song and without much need for buildup of elaborate construction, be enthralled by the sheer power on display. It is a very easy album to like, accessible even, carried entirely by the pure strength of every party member. It is an album carried by honed instrumentation and fearsome singing; there isn’t really that much else to say about it.
Yet there are a few areas it does fall a bit flat. The title track does not punch with the same force as the preceding “Voyage of the Wraith.” Make no mistake, it would slaughter the average NWOTHM act with ease but the progressions and verse riffs do feel a little stock; lacking the nearly out of control energy found in abundance elsewhere. The soloing can also lack consistency; for example, said title track’s solo feels a bit… off, messy even, a momentary break from the lock-step precision coordination that otherwise characterizes this debut. Granted some of this messiness here and there can add to the explosive, energetic charm I suppose so it may be a question of mileage. It isn’t as if there’s some actually pretty damn cool ones like with “Steel At My Side”, moments where the steady delivery breaks qpart for these momentary escapades into relatively simpler (compared to some of the shrednutz out there) but no less compelling fireworks. Ultimately neither of these things are crippling to the extent they are an Achilles’ heel and the album’s strengths easily overpower any of these flaws.
For all my love of out-there, progressively minded extremity I have always kept a love for no-nonsense classic, melodic metal styles. It is not even a matter of necessarily even wanting a palate cleanser; a lot of this stuff demonstrates a very particular kind of artistry beneath its rough-and-tumble exterior. It is however an artistry concerned far more with fully evoking the pulpy adventure and enthralling vigor that carried quite a few classic metal forms throughout the years, whether NWOBHM or Germanic power and speed metal. As it turns out, for all the verse-chorus simplicity present, you need to have elements hooky and compelling enough whether in terms of rhythmic tension or melodic character that maintain their charm with each repeat. It offers the kind of reliability and no-nonsense kick to the teeth you get from putting on an Iron Savior or Liege Lord album; made from the sweaty, beating heart of the genre’s primal youth and even after all these years no less relentless than it was in 1988. When your dungeon-conquering party requires invigorating charisma and armor-shattering force, the savage Owlbear easily demonstrates itself to be up to the task.
4/5 outhouses smashed to pieces by some horrible, distantly roaring beast.
Owlbear’s debut album can be purchased on their bandcamp when it releases August 4.