Review Summary: A new generation of epic power metal begins.
Power metal. The fans of the genre love it, but it doesn't always love them back. Sometime after the turn of the millennium, power metal just sort of ran out of steam. Rhapsody of Fire (then just known as Rhapsody) were riding high in the European metal scene, Blind Guardian were turning turgid Tolkien tales into metal masterpieces, and even the more fusion oriented groups like thrash/power US heavyweights Iced Earth were chomping at the bit to tear listeners a few new superfluous ear holes.
But somewhere along the way, it just kind of petered out. While some groups such as the aforementioned Blind Guardian continued to turn out relatively consistent material, other bands lost their way while still others just sank into a sea of cliches, rehashing ground already covered by their contemporaries. Iced Earth went through a carousel of line-up changes and Jon Schaffer climbing so far up his own ass he threatened to collapse into a singularity. Stratovarius was eaten alive, figuratively and almost literally, by the now washed up Timo Tolkki. Nightwish, whom I still enjoy mind you, had their mainstream breakthrough and were immediately latched onto by the obnoxious Hot Topic hordes, like an armada of lampreys with badly applied eyeliner and daddy issues guaranteeing that the band's worst songs became the most over-played. The death of Ronnie James Dio seemed symbolic of the genre's descent into a lifeless memory.
However, recent years have given power metal fans some reprieve. Stratovarius for example have reunited with a new guitarist and are turning out the best material they've written in years. DragonForce have released an album that shows them actually attempting to do something other than jam as many notes into a single bar as possible while writing lyrics about magical adventures that talk more about the geography than the actual adventures. Around the same time, a new generation of bands have entered the scene. Not without their flaws of course, and still adhering needlessly to a lot of genre cliches. But they're doing enough to shake things up and make the future of power metal a little brighter. To that effect, I give you my exhibit A: Ancient Bards.
The name of this band tells you what to expect right off the bat, though there are pleasant surprises. Before we get into that I want to address the elephant in the room. Yes, this is Italian power metal, and yes, that means the lyrics are exactly what you would expect. The keyboardist and chief songwriter Daniele Mazza admits that he doesn't actually read fantasy novels but he loves fantasy movies and video games, the Final Fantasy series in particular. This explains a lot. Ancient Bards have two albums as of writing, both furthering the story of Mazza's endearingly ambitious Black Crystal Sword Saga. Unfortunately his ambition overshoots his experience as a writer. There's nothing wrong with the song structures, rhymes, etc. It's the subject matter that's the problem. There are four benevolent kings who are the stewards of a magical super-McGuffin, the titular Black Crystal Sword, an evil wizard named Sendor is trying to get it... you know where this is going. Also, nitpicky but unless Daniele is planning to make this a story that takes place over many, many years, possibly generations, then it's not technically a saga. Yes, I know I'm being pedantic. I don't care. The stupid Twilight series has made me a little touchy about stories misusing the word "saga."
Whatever. Nobody listens to this genre for lyrical brilliance. So how's the music? I would call it epic if the word weren't so horribly abused at this point. Epic has been so thoroughly bad-touched by people who will use it to describe any song that has a piano or synth strings on it that it's starting to lose its meaning. But I digress. Ancient Bards do not hold back on the symphonic or the metal.
Early in the album with the official opening track Birth of Evil (indulgent instrumentals don't count as opening tracks as far as I'm concerned) we're introduced to one of the first surprises I talked about
: bassist Martino Garattoni. It's a cliche in power metal that the bassist only needs to know what key the song is in and just play the root note really fast. Martino however is not content to play bitch to the guitarists. He holds his own in the mix despite the production trying to drown him out, pulls off a few interesting maneuvers, and even breaks out a trio of solos (Birth of Evil, Only the Brave, and Daltor the Dragonhunter). The man knows his way around six strings better than some guitarists. Yes, Martino does play a 6-string bass.
Speaking of six strings, I would be remiss not to talk about the guitars. Power metal demands a high degree of musicianship from its axe men. Claudio Pietronik and Fabio Balducci are the dynamic duo in this outfit. Though Claudio mostly handles the lead duties, Fabio isn't a slouch. The two show off a number of well-done melodic harmonies.
One highlight of Claudio's style is his use of eight-finger tapping in his solos. Right now, some of you are thinking, "Oh hell. DragonForce do that all the time and I was bored then too." Also yes, I can read your minds through the internet. But hold on just a moment. There is one huge difference separating Claudio from Herman Li: structure. Whereas many of DragonForce's solos sadly devolve into exercises of seeing how many chromatics they can squeeze into G major, Claudio's solos follow clear order and arrangements and natural progressions of a melodic theme. For him, the tapping is just a tool that allows for more articulate sonic expression.
The riffs are what you would expect from most power metal. That is to say that it's mainly a selection of straight groove chord progressions and single-note melodies. That's all well and good on its own but there isn't much variety beyond that. The aforementioned harmonies are nice but often take a back seat to those provided by the keyboards and orchestra. Segue!
Let's talk about the keyboards. Daniele Mazza is the brains behind the band and it shows. Everything is arranged like a symphony here. Densely layered orchestral arrangements are the order of the day but as I stated before, this is Italian power metal. If you expected anything different, you're either new or you haven't been paying very good attention. Nonetheless, Daniele proves himself to be more than up to the task. The melodies and arrangements are all quite beautiful and his solos are as impressive as his bandmates'. In particular, there's some very soulful piano work on Lode Al Padre.
Astute readers may have noticed that I've gone ten paragraphs without talking about the vocals. That may in part be because the way I convinced several friends to check this band out was by mentioning that in addition to a pretty face, lead vocalist Sara Squadrani also has a very impressive rack. Perhaps I'm trying to make up for my passive sexism and cavalier attitude of, "Hey, whatever gets them to check the band out in the first place." Whatever. I'll take a more proactive approach by making no further references to her physical appearance in this review. Although I have to wonder if the damage is already done and half of you have already stopped reading to go to GIS and pad your "Masturbation Material" folder... Moving on.
Miss Squadrani proves to break the mold for female metal vocalists. Rather than hiring an out-of-work opera singer with a diet consisting exclusively of cigarettes, cocaine and coffee, the band has hired on a singer whose main influence is Celine Dion. Don't hit the Back button on your browser just yet, duder. I know to some of you that might sound like a lateral move at best, but Sara has the kind of voice that was made for filling an arena. Though there's some strain on her higher end, the passion and expressiveness that this sort of music demands is there. Holy *** is it there!
I would like to make note that Sara is not exempt from the recurring trend of European vocalists who can't quite seem to shake their accents. This isn't always a bad thing, mind. It can just be a little distracting when the word used most often on this album is "sword" and she always pronounces it "serd." There are passages sung in Italian, and these work to her advantage. I don't speak a word of Italian, but I'm okay with that because when you disconnect yourself from language, the human voice is just another instrument. My own recent forays into language and world music have taught me that some languages just naturally lend themselves well to certain tones. For example, the languages of the tribes of the Iroquois nation all sound kind of badass, Suomi and Gaelic are very lyrical, and Hawaiian is probably the friendliest damn language I've ever heard. Hearing Sara singing in Italian is like someone managed to create a soundtrack to elegance, heartache, and adventure at the same time. I hear this and feel like putting on chain mail and going on a magical adventure for the king, the lands, the mountains... Just me?
I haven't said much about the drums, but unfortunately there isn't much I could say that hasn't already been said. Now-former drummer Alessandro Carichini is certainly fast behind the kit, but not especially innovative. He reminds me most of early 2000's Thomen Stauch. If you've heard Blind Guardian's A Night at the Opera, you can predict what this guy's drumming sounds like. He's adequate, but not all that remarkable. It's true what they say: finding a really good guitarist is like finding a needle in a stack of needles, but finding a really good drummer is like trying to find a sanitary surface at Dave Navarro's house. Regardless, if that style of drumming is what you're into, this won't disappoint.
The biggest downside here is once again the production. The record does show a certain lack of experience on the band's part in this department. Martino fights to stay audible in the mix as I mentioned and some of the choruses backed by a choir are so heavily produced as to make the lyrics nearly unintelligible. This also has the effect of drowning Sara in the mix and we lose the sense of a lead singer to carry the melody and inspire that sing-along feeling. This is particularly unfortunate on songs like Farewell My Hero where the verse melody is actually catchier than the chorus.
On a final note about the lyrics, the drawbacks of writing in a language that is not your first become clear the first time you hear lyrics written using modern American idiomatic speech. When you're doing a Tolkien-esque fantasy and the word "ain't" comes up, that's one of those little things that causes bigger problems for the listener. It sounds like a stupid thing to pick on, but choice of words is incredibly important in creating the write tone to a written work, especially in poetry and songwriting. I speak from experience that this is difficult to master and easy to screw up, but there are some cases where it was just really avoidable. This is one of those cases. Again, I blame this on the fact that no one in the band actually reads fantasy literature, much less in English.
Though the record has its flaws, it's a promising debut. Melodic, majestic, and magical, it's exactly the way I like my power metal. Take comfort, true metal warriors, in knowing that for every Crucible of Man or Stratovarius (the self-titled album, not the band itself) or Eternal Empire, there's a group like Ancient Bards who are willing to bring the epic.