Review Summary: A Greek stranger joins the Swedish caravan going through dunes and misty valleys.
After six albums and 15+ years active we can say without any questions that what started out as a simple side project for Arch Enemy’s guitarist Michael Amott has grown into one of the longest living and best bands into the stoner rock genre. Given the consistent level of quality in their releases and Amott’s nearly uncanny ability to crank out as many catchy, 70’s blues laden hard rock riffs as you can possibly imagine there were no signs of stopping. However the five year long gap between “Demons” and this record has been marked by another major line-up change. Vocalist JB Christoffersson left the band and his position has been fulfilled by a rather unexpected choice: Apollo Papathanasio the soaring vocalist of such power metal acts as Time Requiem and Firewind. At first glance he seems like a bit of an odd choice for a musically much more restrained band like the Beggars, but thanks to his melodic sensibilities and sheer talent his managed to adapt his voice and making a good transition.
Which brings us to an even more important factor: Given the history of this band, every vocalist represented a different era especially in musical context. In the early years with Spice the focus was on a heavy fuse of contemporary desert/stoner rock and other hard rock influences like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. With JB the music had a much heavier, metallic edge and a traditional approach with more straightforward songwriting. With arrival of Apollo, the band has fully embraced their 70’s roots, from the sound, to the delivery while also keeping some of the fuzzy warmth they carried since the early days. But while this may be absolutely true to “Earth Blues”, their first release together “Return to Zero” feels more like a transitional album where even they sound a bit unsure about what they should continue: The crushing heaviness of our times or the keyboard-driven hard rock of the past.
This duality makes “Return to Zero” the band’s least cohesive album to date as the 13 songs represent nearly every side this band had while introducing some new ones at the same time. Thus it doesn’t carries such a memorable musical identity like the previous records but nevertheless manages to deliver on many aspects. The first half of the album represents the classic Beggars sound more. The opener “Lost in Yesterday” and “The Chaos of Rebirth” present themselves through thick, clattering riffs with Apollo’s mellow voice and Per Wilberg’s organ making a dynamic contrast. Also the former features one of the most haunting guitar solos in Amott’s long and fruitful career. “Star Born” and “We Are Free” are groovy, catchy mid-tempo stoner rockers that does their job well enough to grab the listener.
The second half of the album is where the 70’s origins start effect much more with the tempo, chord progressions and keyboard delivery straight out from the early heydays of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. Such songs “Concrete Horizons” and “Believe in Me” not to mention the upbeat and simplistic closer “Time to Live” and the downright infectious “A New Dawn Rising”. However the most interesting as well the best track on the whole album for me is “Spirit of The Wind”. This six minute long song is a complete break from the usual Beggars’s sound as it heavily relies on a continuous but extremely atmospheric clean guitar riff and Apollo’s haunting and powerful singing. The bass is minimal, the drums are practically non-existent, and the whole song sounds like a modern update on Black Sabbath famous Planet Caravan both in terms of its texture and feel.
Many dismiss this record as either the band’s weakest record to date or an effort where they display every sign of their musical endeavors but essentially just go through the motions. Personally while it certainly doesn’t have the same earth-shattering power of “Ad Astra” or “Demons” as well as having a couple of duds (“The Road Less Travelled” is very cheesy and not in a good way), I still think carries the feel and sound of the band well enough with some great gems. No to mention the competence and the energy level is palpable by every performer. Their craft is still in tact and that’s more than respectable for a band going this long.