Review: Starborn – Savage Peace
High impact power metal saturation bombardment.
When power metal came into being around 1983 and 1984, it was a genre that was as riffy and attitude-driven as the thrash metal it served as a punk-free alternative too. In essence, it was what happened when the disciples of NWoBHM and its immediate offshoots wanted a faster, heavier, and more explosive sound but didn’t want to sacrifice the melody and swashbuckling adventure that the onset of hardcore punk influences had brought. Even when the now dominant European branch started taking form around the mid to late 80’s it was still mostly guitar-driven metal and sometimes not very far from the American style that it would go on to overtake by the mid 90’s. Warp forward to today and the genre is mostly associated with hackneyed, tongue-in-cheek, cartoonish irony poisoning and sickeningly saccharine pop-hook mediocrity. Yet recent signs have pointed to a slow resurgence of the crunchier, heavier end of the genre moving from stylistic outliers or a few established big names to an increasingly larger part of the so-called “New Wave Of Traditional Heavy Metal” movement as the rising popularity of “epic metal” such as Gatekeeper, Eternal Champion, and Visigoth brings with it a renewed interest in the USPM that said subgenre existed alongside.
Starborn began around 2012, and while 2014’s Born by the Wind demo was a shaky start for them, it bore the hallmarks of a renewed interest in the original ideas that carried power metal; three years later, they would metamorphose into the vastly superior EP, The Dreaming City. It went so far as to not only meld the most muscular guitar work of both Europe and the USA’s gnarliest but also an understated progressive metal influence a la Crimson Glory and Fates Warning, sharpening firepower with refined finesse to the extent it appeared a completely different band. With Savage Peace, this progressive element has further moved to the forefront, but by no means is this a substantially less heavily armed Starborn than they were four years ago. Taking a forebodingly ominous take on the genre across a wider range of tempos, the latest from one of the UK’s finest opens a variety of new possibilities while still crashing through mountains with the sheer beefiness at their command.
A powerful riff-driven sound set at a midpaced tempo, occasionally dropping to a slow dirge pace or a fast speed metal jog, over which despondent vocals wail and wander to counterpoint the guitar work is the general idea of this album. Tempos stop, pause, and shift frequently with both guitars adapting to the various changes with an aggressive, tightly executed approach; an eye for arching lead patterns emerges from this dense rhythmic context, adding extra layers of harmony that narrate and help build upon and contrast the sheer intensity present even at their most doom-like tempos. At times, said leads even function as riffs and frequently help to provide some excellent harmonization with the John Arch-esque vocals which often wander away from dominant melody lines in the guitar. The somewhat unusually phrased singing is capable of moments of seemingly off-key wailing resulting in intentionally uneasy lines and those of high flying if sinister intensity, snaking around the rigid rhythmic structures surrounding it. The resulting combination creates idiosyncratic moments of weighty, lumbering chords coexisting with bursts of quasi-thrashing intensity over which a highly charismatic (if at times ambiguous) vocal performance elaborates over a variety of changes in structures, speed, and phrasing over songs that while not say, the equivalent of Power of Omens or Watchtower in terms of intricacy, still include far more twists and turns than would be the norm for many of their contemporaries.
A strong example of this newfound intricacy appears right off of the bat with “Existence Under Oath.” High intensity fireworks displays are common openers in power metal, but Starborn play around with these expectations, letting a series of rising cascading verses ride across a steady midtempo riff, morphing into a series of arpeggiated climbing leads that explode into a powerful lead-vocal harmony section, playing off understated leads against an ear-piercingly powerful chorus, all capped off with big pounding drum rolls. It’s by far the most triumphant song and the closest to the prior release in that sense. Just three tracks later however and we have the weirdness of “I Am The Clay.” A big lurching chord that shambles and rushes at sudden moments serves as its backbone, and the forlorn, wistful lyrics are sung with this sort of blunt, semi-melodic tonality, skirting but never really quite indulging in dissonance or atonality. There’s a particular section just a little before the midway point where the vocals and the guitar hit notes that don’t quite meld together harmonically which creates this bizarre, distorted reflection of an atmosphere with a sense of unease and tension between both. However, we get a return to something more familiar with “Lunar Labyrinth,” which appears at times to resemble “Carnival of Shadows” off of the previous EP but enhances it with a mean thrashing riff, breaking at key intervals to let vocals lead the way before a bruising, almost chromatic sounding riff stomps in for a beefy midtempo hammering. What almost sounds like flanged vocals take over for a surging chorus over a rushing double kick beat.
“Inked in Blood,” inspired by Stephen King’s The Shining, takes on a manic almost King Diamond-esque character with its twisty turny songwriting and the absurdly sinister snarl-tinged chorus. It nearly pales compared to this album’s title track that just like that of The Dreaming City, shows them at their most ambitious and intricate. A nearly ten-minute tour de force, it differs in that unlike most other double-digit epics, this one wastes no time going straight for the throat with a punchy jogging pace riff right off of the bat. Digressions towards melodic territory emerge from this charging attack from simple overlaid leads and mirrored upper-register deftly picked notes to even a melodeath reminiscent tremolo lead. A gorgeous solo closes off the song’s first half and just as it seems about to settle again on its opening riff after sandwiching a refreshingly clear lead interplay segment, a strange harmony between both guitars pops up with one playing a lower register note and another playing these very thin, crispy harmonies that almost vaporize into the tumultuous backdrop. Both in turn outline a simple yet contextually hypnotic bassline. It’s only then that we get a massive harmonized chorus momentarily spaced out for an explosive solo before a repeated line carries it to a series of leads that, while simple on paper, create this huge soaring backdrop of emotionally throttling melody over a Blade Runner quote that’s just a bit hard not to get a little teary eyed to. They definitely do draw out this ending a little, but it builds up to this so well that the last few softly repeating notes feel perfectly fine against the sound of a rainstorm.
In 2012 I didn’t think too highly of Starborn, but I was unprepared for how they would become a completely different band. I had a number of ideas of what to expect for this album but while they do harken back to the original strengths of power metal, how they did so still managed to be outright adventurous and avoided falling into “retro” redundancy or otherwise playing it safe. With a willingness to throw curveballs in their songwriting and play at tempos that many other power metal bands might otherwise struggle with, Starborn are armed with a new lineup and an even sharper vision; they’ve cemented themselves as not only genre titans but one of the leaders of the classic metal resurgence. The fusion of big fucking star-destroying riffs and triumphantly bold songwriting creates a sound where one can track down the individual influences yet at the same time struggle to find a particular band to compare them to as a whole. Brimming from every corner with enough ferocity to be the stuff of legends but guided as much by mystical and fantastical currents as they are sheer battle-hardened experience, Starborn’s long-awaited debut album shows a band with a vision of genre possibilities that fulfills the promise of its past in a form that’s looking towards the future. Its appeal isn’t even limited to fans of Helstar or Blind Guardian either. Even if your normal ballpark is the hookier recent trad metal or the previously mentioned pulpy epic metal acts, this album is easily worth your time with how much raw energy and vigor it injects into this sound. Hopefully their accomplishments here will serve as lessons to future power metal musicians. Mandatory listening or complete obliteration.
4/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell