Review Summary: The stage was set one last time...
After releasing the seminal Winter Kill
in 1985 and finding themselves on the cusp of progressive innovation along with the likes of Fates Warning and Watchtower, Slauter Xstroyes had largely disappeared from the public eye in terms of new releases for the remainder of the decade. Nearly 15 years passed and something strange happened. A sophomore release/quasi-compilation was released by the band titled Free the Beast
in 1998, an album containing 8 songs that were recorded in 1987 for what was supposed to be the Free the Beast sophomore release that at first never came to fruition along with four other tracks recorded even prior to Winter Kill: a rough draft of Winter Kill’s title track called "[Mass Confusion]" from '81, "[Metal's No Sin]" and “[Battle Axe]" from '83 as well as "[Dignified Disaster]" from ‘84.
Naturally, there was some skepticism when I first learned of it. An album containing a bunch of '87 tracks along with some prior material released years after the fact? It sounded like a recipe for an inconsistent and thrown-together amalgam of things that were left on the cutting floor. Upon hearing the hour's worth of material contained here, the production turned out to be no cause for worry. The most immediate thing that is noticed is how clear it actually is. Nothing sounds out of place and every instrument is clear in the mix while still being punchy. This also extends to the latter half of the album that contains the tracks that were written prior to 1987 with the only truly noticeable example of lowered production quality being on Mass Confusion due to it having been recorded in a basement. Otherwise, much of the album sounds perfectly unified in sound quality and rather well-done in terms of recording and mastering, especially for the time.
This works to the album’s favor as it grants clarity and impact towards Slauter Xstroyes’ fantastic musicianship, which was quite ahead of its time for its genre even compared to their fellow contemporaries in the genre like Crimson Glory, Heir Apparent and even matching the likes of Fates Warning and Helstar, given how they manage to balance the act of writing memorable passages while also imbuing exhilarating intricacy and a wealth of different moods throughout the entirety of Free the Beast. While the drumming provided primarily by Dave Bonow and several others on this album construct a compelling and multi-faceted foundation that carry the rest of the band, the real stars of this album instrumentally are the guitarist Paul Kratky and the bassist Brent Sullivan. From the very first moment the band begins to play the first track on the album, you’re immediately struck by the startlingly effective and deep chemistry that is struck by these two as they not only work incredibly well together, but much of their composition was practically unheard of in this band’s particular subgenre in the ‘80s. Composition that seems to bear the aesthetic trappings of ‘80s power metal, but contains slashing and angular guitarwork that interweaves in a jaw-dropping dance with frenetic basslines that trade dominance in superb lead playing that even seems stunningly improsivational at the climaxes of tracks like [Farther than Yesterday], the title track and [Battle Axe]. These displays become even more impressive on those older tracks, showing how ahead of the curve they managed to be from a compositional perspective. That said, even the more typical ‘80s power metal riffs on this album are very memorable and do not sound even remotely trite when juxtaposed against the unorthodox writing present throughout as they are often used to anchor the composition and add coherency, a discipline which both manage to sustain even on the instrumental [E Pluribus Unum]. Honestly, Kratky and Sullivan’s ability to combine the best of late ‘80s power metal along with their own progressive affectations is one of the selling points of this album.
However, what also makes this album quite special is the performance of the vocalist, Jonathan Stewart, whose vocal stylings can best be described as a combination between early ‘80s Eric Adams and Nasty Savage’s Ron Galleti. A truly skilled vocal performance that ranges from impressively operatic to utterly demented, which fits the ever-shifting and often menacing nature of the music on Free the Beast, expertly molding each of these individual styles into a cohesive, striking and legitimately theatrical performance. Easily the most impressive of which being his performances on the tracks in the middle of the album like [Farther Than Yesterday] and [Metal’s No Sin], deftly switching between insane Galletti-style histrionics and chilling operatic vocals that would not seem out of place on Manowar’s Into Glory Ride which truly expand the ambitious scope set forth by the rest of the band. Even on an initial listen, Stewart’s impact was immediately felt and his contributions only served to enhance the dynamics of the album while still making a lot of the songs quite catchy, making this one of my favorite vocal performances on a metal album to date.
While it is incredibly unfortunate that they could not release the material they had recorded until a little over a decade after the fact, there is perhaps a silver lining to this album being released in 1998, since it was during a time when many progressive power metal acts had been starting to release some of their finest material and Free the Beast not only managed to show how the band blazed trails for future acts, but also how well their work holds up even in the face of their relative obscurity.