Review Summary: The sophomore effort of the bards continues the quest to resurrect power metal.
Concept albums are hardly a new idea. And the idea of a concept spanning multiple albums isn't either. Reviewing them can be a bit of a tricky affair because finding one that isn't completely ludicrous is like seeing Bigfoot: the odds are one in a million and no one will believe you anyway. Tarkus, 2112, Heart of a Killer, Tommy, all of them make sense only if you consider horse tranquilizers an entree. I say all this because I want you to know up front that the outlandishness that seems to come with the territory of all concept albums is really the only major negative you have to get past with Ancient Bards.
Following in the footsteps of Rhapsody of Fire, Ancient Bards have their own multi-album fantasy story, the Black Crystal Sword Saga. I've mentioned in a previous review that the band's lyricist (and for that matter, the entire band it turns out) loves fantasy movies and games, but doesn't actually read fantasy novels. Consequently, I don't think he realizes that the story looks like someone threw the scripts of Lord of the Rings and the last four Final Fantasy games into a food processor. In this second part of the series, we learn that the character of Dorus who started the whole quest to lead the four kings to stop the dark wizard Sendor from gaining the magical Black Crystal Sword is actually leading them into a trap because he's secretly the stillborn son of Sendor and Queen Shena who Sendor brought back to life with black magic, but couldn't give him a soul so Sendor is attempting to rejoin Dorus with his soul through the power of the sword so it turns out he was just misunderstood and- Oh hell, I can't go on! Are you actually reading this" Like I said, this is the only real hurdle you have to get past.
If you read my previous review of the band, you know that I made comments about lead vocalist Sara Squadrani's accent becoming a little distracting at points and that the production undermined some of the songwriting's strengths. I'm happy to say that neither one is nearly as much of an issue on this outing. The debut album was liked by critics and fans and moved a respectable number of copes, so it seems the band were happy to step up their game and had a bit more money to play with in the studio.
Ancient Bards are all about bombastic and majestic symphonic power metal. Though we have to sit through another indulgent symphonic opening track with spoken word narration, the official opener, To the Master of Darkness kicks off exactly the way you want it to. Sara's vocals soar through the melodies, the guitars crunch and wail, Martino's bass tone is better than ever, the arrangements are beautiful and new drummer Federico Gatti brings a power drumming approach reminiscent of Anvil's Rob Rheiner to the table with a skull crushing double kick technique.
Still, too much bombast is like too much sugar. Eventually, it's going to make you throw up. The band understand this and are able to show moments of restraint enough to give the listener time to recover. The best example here is All That Is True with its somber piano work and understated solos. The improved production is a huge help in this regard. The diversity is essential in showing that the bards are not going to fulfill the power metal cliche of only having two tempos: metal and ballad.
On a personal note I was glad to see them ditch the awful spoken word delivery of Sendor's lines from the previous album. Where before they hired a guy who sounded like a drunken uncle crossed with Andre the Giant, this time Sara sings most of Sendor's lines with the exception being in Through My Veins with guest vocalist Gian Maria Vannoni from up-and-coming Italian melo-death band Dawn Under Sun. There are a couple of passages where Sara gives a spoken word narration, and these are still weak points. Her delivery is that of a community theater Galadriel and her accent is once again front and center, proving to be a distraction at times in the way that it inadvertently calls attention to itself. Power metal bands really should learn from Rhapsody of Fire. Unless you can get Christopher Lee to be your narrator, don't write one in.
Each of the songs shows a clear evolution, never just sticking to a verse-chorus-verse-chorus formula. While the guitar work can get a little samey, this unfortunately comes with the territory of a symphonic approach. If you're not carrying the melody, you're going to be playing straight grooves. The solos are where Martino and Claudio truly strut their stuff, Claudio in particular. There's enough variety to keep the record interesting, but some songs like Valiant Ride and Soulless Child would have benefited from more hooks to keep the listener from getting lost. The balance isn't quite there yet, but the band seem to be intent on trying to find it.
All together, Soulless Child is an improvement over its predecessor and successfully avoids the sophomore slump. Despite all my bitching about the story I genuinely look forward to the next album and the next after that. If power metal fans want to see new life breathed into the genre, these are the kinds of bands they need to be supporting.