Review: Pharaoh – The Powers that Be

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World War (US) Power Metal

There’s a common idea that the NWoTHM for the most part was the second coming of classic ’80s metal styles, primarily of the NWoBHM and its immediate descendants, and that we mostly owe it to bands like 3 Inches of Blood, Enforcer, Alpha Tiger, White Wizzard and so on for the second wind of what many believed was an extinct style (as opposed to a wide umbrella encompassing more than we can name). This of course falls apart if you actually dig deeper into metal as a whole past whatever golden age record labels, tastemakers, and hype-makers are telling you is coming back. Another misconception that follows in its wake is that these styles are essentially finished projects with not much if anything left to offer in terms of growth or idiosyncrasy which falls just as flat after a bit of snooping around the less glamorous corners of an increasingly commercialized genre. In the ’90s and early 2000’s after what to many was the “fall” of classic heavy metal after thrash helped to partially bury it, a number of bands not only refused to get with the groovier, grungier, alternative times but to keep the torches of the past burning. Twisted Tower Dire, Skullview, Phantom, Manilla Road, Heavenward, Running Wild, Phantom, Saber Tiger, Sabbat (Japan), Dark Quarterer, Revelation (Maryland), Inquisicion (Chile), Solstice (UK), Cauldron Born (USA), Destiny’s End, Crescent Shield, Onward… the list can go on for quite a while.

What’s more surprising is that while these bands made it incredibly clear they were the direct descendants of ’80s giants, a refreshing amount of them could hardly be accused of being cheap retreads of the past. Whether it was Skullview’s surprising implementation of bulldozing Swedish death metal influence alongside non-circular progressively influenced songwriting, Manilla Road’s so-antiquated-it’s-alien ’70s inspired psychedelic might, Sabbat’s bizarre mishmash of proto black metal and early NWoBHM, or Solstice’s melancholy death-doom inspired technique repurposed for might rather than melancholy, many of these pre-NWOTHM bands functionally did not treat their music as a tribute to the past, but a continuation of the best parts of it with little care for popular trends.

This is the movement that underground legends Pharaoh emerged from, impressively having kept all but a single member from their original 1997 lineup. Some might recognize the name due to the presence of singer Tim Aymar who worked with Death’s Chuck Schuldiner in the short-lived Control Denied. For others, outlaw multi-instrumental sorcerer Chris Black (playing drums here) and axe-slinging riff-maestro Matt Johnsen may ring a few bells of their own with their work in bands like Aktor, Fool’s Game, Dawnbringer, and High Spirits alongside a wide number of guest and session appearances in bands including Nachtmystium, MindMaze, Canvas Solaris, and Memento Waltz. With this impressive pedigree under their belt, it’s worth noting that Pharaoh initially didn’t really start off as a particular standout of American style power metal (to be abbreviated as USPM from here onwards) in 2003 with After the Fire. It was a solid piece of catchy, high energy, youthful sounding energy primarily distinguished by Tim Aymar’s gnarly, soulful voice and metaphorical, heartfelt lyrics.

Warp forward to 2006 with their cult classic sophomore The Longest Night, one of the now well-established Cruz Del Sur Music’s first home runs, and Pharaoh had genuinely matured in the sense of expanding on every great idea from their start and adding in a bunch of interesting new elements. A touch of prog, present from both its two 8-minute epics to various technical and dynamic shifts littered throughout its length, now made itself clear. Even better, the band just got plain riffier and sharper on their respective instruments, playing this genre with an impressive viciousness tempered by honed dexterity. For the next two albums, 2008’s Be Gone and 2012’s Bury the Light, a bit of an identity crisis presented itself to them. The principal fault of this era of Pharaoh is that they didn’t seem to be sure what to do; more emphatic, subdued emotive numbers? More aggressive laser-precise high-flying workouts? Semi-anthemic almost fist pump-inducing callbacks to their oldschool roots? They were not bad albums, nor were they bad songs, but there was a sense of their cohesion faltering amidst a number of experiments that while interesting, never seemed to gel into a united voice. It has now been 9 years and the mighty Pharaoh has awoken from its slumber with an answer to the question of whatever it is they would settle on.

As it turns out, the band decided they simply needed to hit harder.

This is a slight simplification of all the intricacies present here but it’s also 100% true that on The Powers That Be, Pharaoh are at their most intensely rifftacular and technically accomplished. The chops behind this have been improved to the point it almost feels like it hints at tech-thrash and it should be noted they were on a Coroner tribute split with the criminally underappreciated prog-maniacs in Canvas Solaris. While they don’t hit the Watchtower threshold of absurdly inhuman math-brained shredding, nearly every song bristles with a sharp attention to detail not just for the ever-incendiary riffing, but also the rhythm section throwing in a great deal of explosive fills and pulsing basslines.

A lot of USPM can get by often on the strength of singing and riffing alone, but Pharaoh goe a step further than most, with not only a crispy production and mixing that separates every musician well, but gives every musician a notable presence in the sonic onslaught. Further differentiating themselves from their compatriots is the lyricism, capturing the turmoil and doubt in an increasingly divisive, socio-politically fractured 21st century amidst crises of environmental, racial, and ideological chaos. Yet, for each ominous number, like the paranoia of its blistering opener “The Powers that Be” and the apocalyptic gloom of “Lost in the Waves,”  there are battle-cries of resolve and revolution like the free wheeling, Running Wild-esque “Freedom” and the incisively cutting carnage of “Ride us to Hell”. It doesn’t feel any less power metal for this preference for a very topical approach (and we should remember that quite a bit of classic heavy metal wasn’t afraid to tackle such subject matter either) as much as it puts a more human face behind the swords and chains they’re swinging at this weighty subject matter.

As previously implied, The Powers that Be can roughly be split into two types of songs: fast-paced full throttle onslaughts of occasionally borderline thrashing firepower and slower, moodier numbers that show an excellent grasp of evocative atmosphere, methodical pacing, and heartfelt lyricism. Thankfully unlike the two prior albums, Pharaoh hits you with the former right off the bat and starts off sprinting. “The Powers that Be” as previously stated is an absolute riot, but there’s a surprising amount of depth, avoiding settling in on its grim chorus, morphing a bit before halfway through its runtime into a mostly instrumental smorgasbord of juicy shredding including some from current Voivod and ex-Gorguts and Martyr guitarist Daniel Mongrain, ending on a ghostly reminder that “no one is coming to save us” with one of Tim’s simpler but far more chilling lines. On the other hand of the spectrum is a completely metal-free ballad track in “Waiting to Drown” built around a simple acoustic guitar riff with a few sparse additions from percussion, bass, and drumming. It has an almost campfire like quality to its humble sound combined with the forlorn lyrics, resigned to the doom of its protagonist.

This skill in crafting instantly memorable clean guitar passages can be heard in the openings of both “When the World was Mine” and “Dying Sun” but both songs aren’t slacking in the riff department either. The first of these has maybe the simplest sounding verse riff but also one of the most cocky, swaggering ones accented with sharp snare and cymbal work and offset by an infectious bassline leading up to its soaring chorus. “Dying Sun” seems almost simple at first, playing off an almost winding, spindly-sounding semi-noodly riff against an elated, multi-tracked chorus harmonizing with a series of soaring guitar leads. Just when it seems it might get repetitive, the song morphs with an undulating melody line over Tim’s pained, soulful singing, into a short clean break. After that, we’re treated to one of the more relaxed leads on the album and a simple crunching riff as Tim belts out the powerful resolution to the track between some gorgeous soloing, ending on another new set of tech-riffs. It’s by far the proggiest song on the album, and it’s interesting to watch it morph from a simple verse-chorus dichotomy into something else entirely.

Of course, most of you are mostly here for the rippers and when it comes to that, “Ride us to Hell” isn’t just the best of them and the strongest track on the album, but probably one of Pharaoh’s top 5 tracks. I’ve made it clear they’re damn good musicians that only steadily improved with time, but these 4.5 minutes feels like they condensed all their talents into one compact salvo. Its verse riff never holds still for too long, frequently interrupted by erupting fills that follow through its somersaulting lead-in to its harmony-happy chorus. As if that’s not tantalizing enough, the mighty Jim Dofka (of well, cult shredding power-thrashers Dofka) pops in for its soloing, resulting in some of the most cyclonic fretboard action outside of a classic Shrapnel Records release.

There’s a reason I’m dedicating a whole paragraph for this song; it’s so good it almost makes the rest of the album seem bad for just how absurdly explosive it is. It does come smack dab in the middle though unlike say, the rollercoaster ride of “By the Night Sky” which popped up a little early at the first quarter of The Longest Night and made the rest of the album kind of feel like it lived in its towering wake. Thankfully, the remaining 4 songs, while they don’t hit quite the same level of action movie pyrotechnics, have a number of emotional highs and surprises of their own but  the speedier tracks afterwards don’t quite burn as brightly for all their strengths.

With the classic metal revival having been in full swing for a while now and a lot of the idiosyncrasy from the pre-NWoTHM days of post-classic era heavy metal struggling to make itself known, Pharaoh has delivered a masterwork of the infinite possibilities possessed by USPM. Even if this style never really got its time in the limelight, it’s soldiered on and Pharaoh make it clear it’s here to stay much in the same way Manilla Road and Cirith Ungol inspired epic metal or more straightforward NWoBHM-worshipping straight up traditional heavy metal bands are. It’s a reminder that simply because you play in an older, less modern style doesn’t mean you’re creating a lesser form of metal. The intensity, atmosphere, lyricism, songwriting, and musicianship on display when combined easily matches or even outperforms many of their harsher counterparts and reaches into a domain of proggy, technical metal that many assumed lost if they were even aware of it in the first place.

It’s an album that feels like it captures the mayhem of our increasingly uncertain times with its honest lyricism and fragmenting musicianship but it’s not hard to trace its roots to the time when this form of metal first flourished and see how they’ve built on old ideas with a modern mindset. Joining newer legends including Atlantean Kodex, Vultures Vengeance, Trial (Sweden), Demon Bitch, Ancient Séance, Chalice (Finland), Acerus, Tyranonaut, Tanagra, Gates of Paradox, Starborn (UK), Amulet (UK), and Helvetets Port, Pharaoh is at the front of the vanguard and making it clear classic metal isn’t only going strong but smarter, sharper, and more savagely determined to fight for its place in the world than ever before.

4/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell

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