Review Summary: The album that restores my faith in underground heavy metal.
My deal with underground bands is as follows: I love hunting them down, love supporting them, buying or downloading their stuff, getting in touch with their members, and so forth. Unfortunately, there are precious few bands that acutally make me want
to do that. Most of what I havei n my hard drive, popular bands aside, ranges from “very poor” to “really not my style”. Still, I refuse to give up hope, and continue to scavenge Internet sites and bargain bins alike for the next underground sensation.
And you know what? Sometimes it works. Recently, Tokyo Dragons and Messiah’s Kiss won me over at low, low prices, after initial mid-price reluctance. With today’s subject, however, there wasn’t even that initial doubt: Phantom X just won me over at first listen, and a half-dozen spins later, I’m still satisfied. Finally, here is a lesser-known band worth supporting. My hunt has bore fruit.
Truth be told, however, Phantom X may not be that
unknown a band. This is the second full-lenght for the Texas quartet, continuing the chaptered structure of the debut (here, we have chapters 5 through 7). Additionally, their lead singer’s name, Eric Goocher, vaguely rings a bell. Production work by Neil Kernon also shows that the guys at least have some connections. And good ones, too – the sound on this album is crisp, clear and entirely pleasing, with every instrument having its place and being audible throughout.
Clearly, this is a family affair. As stated, the singer’s name is Eric Goocher, and the only two guest on the album are called Chuck Goocher and Devon Goocher. To boot, the band manager is one…Stephanie Goocher! Nepotism aside, however, this proves to be a very worthy vehicle for Goocher’s quality vocals and guitarist Eric Knudson’s overtly classic guitar licks. Backed by bassist Glen Malicky and drummer Danny White, the duo set out to make a sound that, at its core, is good old-fashioned heavy metal, but which, upon second inspection is a little more than that. The group set out from a very traditional basis – clearly influenced by icons like Judas Priest or Riot – to incorporate bits of hard’n’heavy, American-style power metal and even melodic thrash, a la Metallica or Megadeth. The end result is a sound that is difficult to pin down, other than calling it “metal”.
As noted, Goocher is the real star here. His voice sits squarely in between James Rivera (of Helstar, Destiny’s End and Seven Witches) and Johnny Gioeli (of Hardline and the Axel Rudi Pell band), with more than a nod to Tim “Ripper” Owen, Mike Tirelli (Holy Mother, Messiah’s Kiss), Bruce Dickinson, Geoff Tate, Cam Pipes (3 Inches of Blood) and even James Hetfield or Dave Mustaine! Overall, a very versatile and original performance that raises the bar of this CD. The other standout is less predictable – drummer Danny White turns in a dynamic, powerhouse performance that greatly favours the already quite catchy songs. Knudson and Malicki do their part, the first with a technique that sometimes approaches Axel Rudi Pell and the second with solid and self-assured bass lines.
As for the songs themselves, they’re fantastic. Sometimes, it seems hard to fathom that tracks as different as Road Killer
and Ancient Anthem
can coexist on the same record, and yet with Phantom X, it makes sense
. The first half of the album is absolutely flawless, showcasing the best of traditional heavy metal and reminding us why we like this style. From the rip-roaring opening with the title track to the exquisitely beautiful Everspell
, to the big dumb speed metal attack of Texas Death Squad
, there isn’t a single song to waste among the first five. The problem is that the second half falters considerably in relation to the first. The first warning is given with the sleep-inducing Day of The First Dawn
, but the folky Ancient Anthem
raises the bar once again. However, the damage is done, and from then on nothing is ever the same again. Between songs that go relatively unnoticed (Black Sails
) and others that are outright bad (Dance Among The Graves
, a waste of a great set of lyrics), we are left with few saving graces. What little there is, however (13th Hour
, the Mötörheadian Road Killer
) is enough to warrant the album a high rating.
The group’s strong points are also not what you might have expected. The solos go from negligible to okay, although the riffs are above-average; the drumming, as noted, is very good; but it’s in the lyrics that this band truly shines. Clunky syntax and grammar aside (Day Of The First Dawn
), the group tackle interesting and unexpected subjects like the crucifixion of Christ (Dark Divinity
), the loss of a loved one (Dance Among The Graves
, a beautiful example of poetry in metal) and war (Black Sails
). Even when they succumb to metal clichés – generally on the best songs, like Road Killer, Texas Death Squad
(a list of Texan clichés made rock lyric) or the sword and sorcery of Everspell
– they come out with their reputation untouched, because they give us great no-frills metal songs.
However, not all is that good. As stated, the group is not afraid to show their influences, and sometimes they hit too close to home. Black Sails
would have sat proudly alongside Flight Of Icarus
and Where Eagles Dare
on Maiden’s 1983 masterpiece Piece Of Mind
; Join The Revolution
sounds like an Axel Rudi Pell outtake; and if something sounds familiar in 13th Hour
, that’s because it is
- you keep trying to tell where you’ve heard that before, only to suddenly realise that the group is doing the Megadeth Verse, with raspy staccato vocals backed only by bass and drums. Still, when they manage to pull it off this cooly, how can one be mad at Phantom X?
And that’s another key word here: cool
. Some of the tracks are so cool that they ingratiate themselves at first listen and remain high on the favourites list – Texas Death Squad
is the shining example, as well as the best song on the album. Not far behind is Road Killer
, although it is a more basic and inferior song. The other standouts go for elegance rather than flash, and here Everspell
is the archetype of a classy heavy metal song. Bringing up a solid rear are songs like Join The Revolution, Storm Riders, Dark Divinity
or Ancient Chant
, with its kickass mandolin solo and children’s chorus. This strong ensemble of songs makes the presence of clunkers like Dance Among The Graves
and Day Of The First Dawn
less damaging, although noticeable. All in all, however, Storm Riders
is the album that restores my fate in underground heavy metal, and deserves a proud place in my CD rack, right in between Judas Priest and Messiah’s Kiss.
Everspell (Chapter 6)
Texas Death Squad
13th Hour (Chapter 7)