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Thursday 23 July 2020

Reviews: Primal Fear, Judicator, Volcano X, Inhalement (Reviews By Simon & Matt)

Primal Fear: Metal Commando (Nuclear Blast)

Primal Fear are one of a number of established Euro Power Metal acts for whom the UK seems to hold little interest. You know, the ones who can appear mid and top table at the likes of Wacken festival regularly, but who rarely grace this country’s shores with anything more than a token theatre show in London to fill a stopover to the USA or South America. Which is odd and bloody frustrating, because this band ought to be huge over here. For those like me who unashamedly love the genre, Primal Fear releasing an album is an event and you don’t listen to it, you anoint it – so apologies in advance for a slightly longer review than normal, but this baby deserves it.

Germany have always been at the top of this sub-genre, and this particular line up sounds very rich with the continuation of the three axe-attack approach of the last two albums. The recent addition of erstwhile Gamma Ray drummer Michael Ehré also brings a freshness to the rhythm section with some thundering footwork, but also some more subtle heaviness rather than the constant double-bass work so common in the sub-genre. Despite a mid-paced introduction, with its catchy hammer-on riff opener I Am Alive is full on speed-metal with a catchy chorus, and classic Primal Fear. This album starts how it means to go on – unashamed top notch Power Metal from one of the best in the game and still sounding on form thirteen albums after singer Ralf Scheepers, the man whose career arguably proved more successful than the man did get the filler job in Judas Priest first formed the band.

Along Came The Devil brings superb and pure Halford-esque screaming and it’s refreshing to hear Scheepers hit those notes again with such ease, and I really can’t see any sign of him or anyone in this band slowing down. The lyrics are pure Power Metal cheese, and bloody marvellous with it to, because let’s face it this is the sort of band you want to be listening to in a field, ale-filled tankard in hand and able to pick up the singalong chorus of a song you’re hearing fresh. Hear Me Calling is a really catchy and effective Power ballad and a great addition to the numerous successes they have had with that type of song, walking the tightrope between ballad and full on Rock-out in much the same way as Seven Seals did way back in 2005.

The Lost And Forgotten sees those long high vocal notes back, along with some much more guttural and aggressive vocal touches that keep this sound hard, fresh, heavy and above all relevant. The fact that Scheepers can so effortlessly slide up and down the many octave range in between those two points leads me to the conclusion that the 1990’s incarnation of Priest’s loss is Euro-Metal’s gain (and one can only conclude that Ripper Owens must have been a hell of lot cheaper to hire…). Add to this the highly effective interplay between the three guitar players and you have a really powerful bit of riffage pile driving this song forward. When they do go full on crazy-ape bonkers with a double bass drum and sex, as with My Name Is Fear, this doesn’t sound like it’s going into predictable territory. This is after all one of the bands who established and lead this genre, and I guess the reality is that although Primal Fear have been churning albums like this every couple of years, when the quality is this consistently good, who cares?

I Will Be Gone proves that they can go full-on ballad without sounding like they’re hunting airplay, but because they have something to say, and Scheepers voice is soul-touching, emotive and absolutely impeccable, counterpointed by some subtle and touching acoustic guitar work – understated and beautiful. This is one of the high points of not only this, but probably the last three albums if I’m honest, and really does deserve to close the show on a big crowd somewhere where the beer flows free. Raise Your Fists takes us back into fist-pumping crowd-pleasing territory, and despite the fact they have churned out many tracks in this vein, this does not feel like filler or padding material, and this doesn’t let up with Howl of the Banshee which is one of the most addictively tap along tracks these boys have ever done. And my, that solo….

The album concludes with something different for Primal Fear - the thirteen minute epic Infinity, their longest composition to date. It builds the mood slowly with some haunting semi-acoustic guitar work and an almost unaccompanied Scheepers pulling you into the song vocally. The sounds gradually layer up and by the time you get to two and a half minutes in, you’re hooked. This is dark, moody, powerful stuff and would give Iron Maiden a run for their money when it comes to epic album closers. The instrumental sections show the technical proficiency of these guys, do not sound contrived or repetitive and this song alone really deserves a headline Bloodstock slot and a shed load of pyro. The hooks here are catchy, and there’s enough heavy interplay to remind you who is actually playing here and what they are giving you, which is value for money as it builds to an epic crescendo.

The production is really rich and lavish as well, with the kind of full sound that experience (and budget) inevitably bring, but which cannot be compromised if you want to stay in the lead. I’ve had something to say about nearly every track on here, because every song has something to say in a fresh and positive way. Primal Fear, please come and play here soon - the UK needs to understand what all the fuss is about. 10/10

Judicator: Let There Be Nothing (Prosthetic Records) [Simon Black]

Some bands have really been disrupted by Covid-19, forcing a creative injection of energy into working out how to overcome geography and isolation to continue to produce material in the new world we find ourselves. Judicator seem to be taking it in their stride. Given that all of the guys are based in different parts of the USA from Arizona, Utah, Pennsylvania to California, this meant recording their inputs locally, with mixing taking place somewhere else entirely. As with all their four previous albums, it’s a concept and heavily influenced by the sound of Blind Guardian, which is probably not surprising given the two founder members met as the first people through the door at a Guardian gig in the early part of the decade. My challenge with this album is time, as complex concept pieces like this take many listens to unpick all the subtlety, something this old hack sadly doesn’t have enough of and I get the feeling that if I had the time to do that I would probably appreciate it more.

The opening title track has touches of Clannad in its opening bars, before launching into a full on Speed metal assault. That Blind Guardian influence is loud and clear, not least in John Yelland’s vocals which have a very similar intonation and timbre to Hansi Kirsch, but I would argue a slighter widely range, and don’t sound at all forced when aiming for the testicle rattling high notes. Musically and technically this is tight stuff and a lot of effort has gone into making this sound like a band working together despite the challenges of the time. It’s held together by some really solid guitar work – Gloria is a good example and probably the best song on here, as the uncredited female guest vocals add a bit of variety to the tone and a good choice for single.

Like many Power Metal concept albums, there’s a lot going on in the nearly hour long run time, with many of the 8 Acts/tracks running at an average 8 minutes, none of which are bad. The challenge I have with this is that it’s fairly similar throughout in terms of pace, tempo and sound, meaning that there’s little differentiating the individual songs from their peers. Where this album scores over many of its European contemporaries, is it doesn’t sound orchestrated and avoids the clichés of the dreaded cheesy introduction track or, worse still, the spoken word linkage track, both of which just sound naff in this day and age. The focus is on technically proficient and complex tracks that stand on their own two feet, but for some reason the overall sound quality is not as punchy as I would expect. Good, but samey throughout. 7/10

Volcano X: The Sacrifice (Self Released) [Matt Bladen]

Hailing from the Ancient Kingdom Of Dundee (if Gloryhammer are to be believed) Volcano X are a heavy/power metal band who are influenced by the NWOBHM but also heavier stuff such as thrash and modern metal. It means that they really have much more of an American style of power metal taking from acts such as Iced Earth, Jag Panzer, Nevermore and latter period Judas Priest (Ram It Down Painkiller). Songs such as punky Helloween styled Dead Behind The Eyes (you'll know what I mean when you hear it) and the bouncing Truth Is A Convincing Lie are lead by the twin guitar fury of JP and Mike as that rhythm gallop is delivered like FedEx from Robi (bass) and Gav (drums). The songs on The Sacrifice are 6 strong slabs of heavy metal played by a band who have honed their sound on shows all around Scotland, if the heavier/more epic end of power metal is your bag then I suggest you check out Volcano X especially that in Johnny Steel (I know) they have an excellent singer with a wide range, something that many underground power/heavy metal bands fail to nail. He has a gruff delivery that has a lot of depth but he can also go high when needed and even do some growl for the thrashier tracks. Raise your fist and yell The Sacrifice is worth it. 7/10

Inhalement: Eternally Stoned (Horror Pain Gore Death Productions) [Matt Bladen]

Boston bruisers Inhalement have a 4 word ethos to their music: "Drugs, Gore & Death Metal" they have been dealing drug-addled death metal since 2018 though before that they were known as Toke. Eternally Stoned is their second EP and once again it's blistering, face ripping death metal where each song is about weed, from MJ Ultra to the title track what you get here is just over 13 minutes of furious death metal which only ever slows for grinding breaks such as the one towards the end of Drowning In Reclaim. None of the songs here are longer than 4 minutes and it shows that Inhalement's plan is to play a short sharp shock of death metal with nods to grindcore brutality, it's destructive blast beats, paint peeling riffs and animalistic vocals that are the order of the day. Recorded in March you can only assume that the lockdown period has meant that they are gaining more 'inspiration' for their subject matter so another EP or even an album may be on the horizon, on the back of this EP it'll be less 'Sweet Leaf' more 'Devil's Lettuce'. 7/10

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