Review Summary: A definite improvement and possibly a sign of good things to come...if you're not a fan of breakdowns or epic keyboards, run for the hills
The newest offering from California’s Winds of Plague, “The Great Stone War”, is a pleasant surprise consisting of a well-balanced blend of the better aspects of their previous work and novel details that make this a step up from its predecessor. “The Great Stone War” is a concept album telling the narrative of the characters and situations leading up to an apocalyptic battle which changes the Earth forever. In keeping with concept album tradition, this album is book-ended with a spoken-word intro and outro which serve to introduce and summarize the tale, respectively. Now before our expectations overreach reality, let’s remember Winds of Plague have yet to establish themselves as master musical storytellers (like Mastodon)…
Musically, “The Great Stone War” is a healthy improvement over their previous album “Decimate the Weak”. Although “Decimate the Weak” was a powerful and reputation-establishing album, it suffered from one-dimensional breakdowns and strong structures, and more importantly, awkward, misplaced keyboards. I’m happy to say that these detractors have been remedied to a certain degree on this album.
First of all, the breakdowns…a quick read over many Metal album reviews on this site demonstrates a general hatred for any type of breakdown. I personally like breakdowns and believe they serve as a physical catalyst during live performances. Some may be pleased upon listening to “The Great Stone War” due to the high amount of variability in the breakdowns sprinkled throughout the album. One unique feature of Winds of Plague is that the breakdowns, even those which are fairly generic, are embellished by keyboards. Also, the breakdowns on “The Great Stone War” are lifted by a new emphasis on time shifts and tempo changes within the breakdowns (versus the chug-chug nature of most the breakdowns on “Decimate the Weak”). This certainly makes for a more interesting listen. Unfortunately, one downside of the high frequency of breakdowns is that some are, in fact, monotonous and quite boring (most occur at the end of songs such as “Forged in Fire”, “Approach the Podium”, and the title track). For the purists who are dismissing this album immediately, it should be noted that this album does feature a couple decent solos which fit nicely into the structure of the songs (“Battle Scars” and “Our Requiem”). Overall, the guitar and bass work on this album are a step up from “Decimate the Weak” due to the diversity of their delivery and the added flair of the keyboards keeps them from becoming stale.
The keyboards on this album may be the biggest improvement of “The Great Stone War”. First of all, they add the symphonic, epic sound required of a bold concept album modeled upon large-scale battles (the band makes no attempts to mask the Lord of the Rings references, especially in the artwork). Apart from setting the mood of the album, the keys are more appropriately used as compared with “Decimate the Weak”. Interestingly, upon close listen, you’ll find the keys persist through most of the tracks. They aren’t being used every once in awhile in a forced, awkward way (as was the case with “Decimate the Weak”) but exist as a separate part of the composition. They are also subdued enough not to be irritating or pretentious.
Lyrically, this album falls right in the middle of really good and really bad. Unfortunately, singing about an ancient, hand-to-hand battle in 2009 is going to sound slightly cheesy. No earth-shattering philosophical issues and clever lyrics are to be found here (for that, go listen to Clutch) but the narrative style of the album is interesting in and of itself. I commend Winds of Plague for not being repetitive and telling the story in a narrative fashion and using some “big” words like “ineluctable”, “vestals”, and “mammoths”. In terms of actual delivery, I must side with the unpopular notion that Johnny Plague is not that bad of a vocalist. His vocals are essentially in the hardcore vein and are slightly intelligible. Sure, he doesn’t have the low to high range of, say, Mitch Lucker of Suicide Silence but he gets the job done and his style suits the intended mood of the album.
The biggest disappointment, musically, on “The Great Stone War” is the drumming. This doesn’t mean the drums are bad, they just detract from the album overall. The reason for this is that 1.) they sound essentially the same in every song, 2.) the double-bass is unrelenting, taking away from changes of pace within the whole composition, and 3.) the overall performance is not on par with the other instruments. The relentless nature of the double bass is extremely evident in the more groove-laden verse sections (“Forged in Fire”, “The Great Stone War”) and the flowing symphonic sections (“Classic Struggle”). The drums are ubiquitous at all moments on “The Great Stone War”, and not in a good “Brann Dailor of Mastodon” kind of way.
In summary, “The Great Stone War” is an improvement and an encouraging trajectory for Winds of Plague. It is important when listening to this album and when approaching it to remember this is Winds of Plague, not Opeth. Apart from the drumming, all aspects of this album show a marked improvement over their previous output. Plus, this album and all advertising associated with it doesn’t present itself as an elitist’s wet dream, so if you’re down for some symphonic, epic metal chock-full of mostly non-generic breakdowns and aggressive vocals, definitely check out “The Great Stone War”.