Review Summary: Alive, kicking, screaming, but only just.
It's pretty difficult to objectively judge a band who are only known because of alleged nepotism. At this point, the The Raven Age is known for being "Steve Harris' son's band", and sadly not much else; which is a shame when you consider that for all its headiness and exhaustingly massive scope, their debut album Darkness Will Rise
is damn good. With a solid groove on most of the tracks, a progressive edge and ever-adventurous song structures, the songs more than often were more than the sum of their parts, parts that elevated what would have been average-at-best metal tracks to something more. Unfortunately, the following year, they lost an essential aspect- Michael Borough, whose deep, baritone voice gave an honest edge to the band's music, as well as guitarist Dan Wright. In their places have come death vocalist and guitarist Tony Maue, who was heard contributing death vox on "My Revenge" from the previous album, and vocalist Matt James. They toured some more with Iron Maiden across Europe and worked on their sophomore effort Conspiracy
, which came notably sooner than it had taken Darkness
Initial signs were promising. Lead single "Surrogate" boasted a far more energetic sound and heavier edge and sign of what was to come, and the band's live performance had improved significantly with James being able to add a bit more spice to the already great voccal melodies. Likewise, Tony Maue's presence has helped the band to achieve a heavier sound, this time less focused on groove and more on technicality. And for most of Conspiracy
, this is very apparent, which is as much a strength as it is a weakness, and one of quite a few things that get in the way of this album's attempts to reach its preceding album's glory.
Despite this, for the most part, Conspiracy
manages to get off to a good start; despite the album's intro track "Bloom of the Poison Seed" being more or less a weaker version of "Darkness Will Rise" without a satisfying payoff, "Betrayal of the Mind" gets the album off and running, delivering the tasty riffs, soaring vocal melodies and time half-time switches with excellent precision for the next 4 minutes. Maue even comes in and brilliantly compliments James with some death vocals here and there, with even a nice slower section in the middle for good measure. "Fleur De Lis" is next, is fast-paced, catchy, with tons of excellent musicianship to back it up, and even a soaring chorus that is for sure going to remain in your head long after the album is done. Unfortunately, what follows next is something of a mixed bag. While the none of the songs are bad in any way, their quality wildly varies from track to track. For every banger like "Seventh Heaven" or "Fleur De Lis", there's forgettable ones like "The Day The World Stood Still" or "Scimitar". Still though, despite this, the album manages to improve quite a few aspects from the previous album. For one, the tracks seem to be united by something of a theme of medieval history, with some tracks being based after historical figures or events. Additionally, the album is far tighter paced than its predecessor, clocking in at close to an hour, with shorter song lengths.
So where does the album fall short? While Matt James is not by any stretch a bad vocalist, and his vocal range is definitely something to be acknowledged, unfortunately they add a generic touch to the tracks that cannot be ignored. Good songs like " Stigmata" are unfortunately brought down by his rather thin vox, and at times you are just begging for Tony Maue and add a much needed kick to the tracks. Additionally, the rather schizophrenic nature of the album does bring it down- most of the track placement feels all over the place. "The Day The World Stood Still" is a song that sounds like it belongs much later in the album, and rather forgettable ballad "The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships" is placed smack dab between two very heavy tracks, thus disrupting what could have been an interesting flow. Additionally, the band tries to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was "Behind the Mask", the previous album's 8-minute closing track; this time being another 8-minute track in the form of "Grave of the Fireflies". And while this album does feel a bit more justified in its length of 8 minutes than "Behind the Mask", unfortunately it isn't as memorable. Despite a gloomy, atomospheric intro that perfectly sets the despaired tone, and gorgeously detailed lyrics that are based off the film of the same name, the first half tries to sound a bit too much like "Behind the Mask", although it's rescued by the song's second half and haunting outro that sure does leave an impression.
One thing though that has seemed to taken a major step forward is the band's performance. The band seems more energized than ever on this release and have a renewed sense of confidence. The intro to "Stigmata", for instance, is one hell of an opening to a track and could almost be a byword for how to immediately grab the listener's attention. Likewise, the entirety of "Stigmata", "Fleur De Lis" and "Seventh Heaven" benefit from the band very audiably enjoying what they're doing. Production certainly has been tightened up with Jai Patel's drums being a bit higher in the mix this time around, and George Harris' little subtle guitar touches being more apparent. It's truly a joy to hear.
With how sophisticated their debut album turned out to be, it was inevitable that Conspiracy
wouldn't quite live up; regardless, despite the album's rather all-over-the-place nature and many flaws, it's still worth listening to, and a solid effort from a band who seem to be very interested in leaving quite the footprint on the current metal scene. While not quite as impressive as Burrough, Matt James is definitely a welcome addition to the family, and hopefully Tony Maue will be around long enough to help the band find their sound. For all we know, the next album may be the point where they truly make their mark.