Wednesday 15 May 2013

Battle Beast: s/t (2013)

Power metal is a genre that has so consistently failed to deliver on the expectations raised by its roots in the kind of epic, dramatic traditional metal fare that was my initiation to the world of heavy music that I generally just write it off as a dead end for true heaviness. I love the classic US power metal sound of bands like Riot and Helstar and even parts of Iced Earth's catalogue. I enjoy some of the earlier iterations of Helloween's catchy speed metal and I even have an abiding affection for Virgin Steele. But the bulk of power metal released in the last couple of decades has simply been too cheesy, too focussed on catchiness and image and insufficiently grounded in the truly otherworldly, epic vision of someone like Ronnie James Dio, or the sheer heaviness that he always dealt in musically, even on a relatively light and tuneful album like Dream Evil. Dream Evil, incidentally an album I like a lot, is what I imagine is the template for much of modern power metal, along with The Last In Line, of course (I love the Holy Diver album too, but musically it's often just a step or two above generic boogie metal with Dio's vocals and lyrics being the main epic element - which is not to say it isn't a brilliant metal album). Instead, you get rubbish like Hammerfall and Nightwish.

Still, I keep giving power metal a second chance, and it's hopefully just my lack of immersion in the genre that ensures that, when I'm not being crushingly disappointed, I find stuff like the Finnish Battle Beast's sophomore album - just catchy enough and nearly metal enough to make me care, and piled with enough cheese to make me kinda wish I hadn't. I'd previously heard a cheesy but satisfyingly heavy song by the band, but the singer was Nitte Valo, a Xena-esque brunette with killer pipes. This time around, it is one Noora Louhimo who, to be fair, has a great voice too, but the album lapses into AoR-laced, synth-saturated pop metal too often. 

Things start well enough with the uptempo 'Let It Roar', a gem of a song that underscores all the guilty pleasures of the genre with its catchy riffing, lush keyboard layers, almost over-dramatic vocals, catchy chorus and totally over the top soloing. If the rest of this album were on similar lines, I'd be happy to think of this as a big ball of heavy metal cotton candy; and indeed a number of them do live up to the album opener. 'Out Of Control' reminds me a little of the last incarnation of Rainbow, specifically the song 'Black Masquerade' whose aura of mystery and menace the song seems to be channeling, albeit with a more extroverted, arena-friendly refrain. Short and to the point, 'Raven' is a soaring, infectious slab of power metal glory, something the band would have done well to stick to more consistently, as is 'Machine Revolution', one of the most convincingly epic songs here despite the sometimes silly lyrics ('torture and mutilation/extremely painful death'...who wrote these lyrics, Glenn Tipton?). 'Kingdom' and its synth intro, 'Golden Age' are pure RPG metal.

Despite keyboard layers that seem to be channelling the spirit of Judas Priest's 'Turbo', 'Out On The Streets' is actually rather nice - it sounds like a more metalised version of something Starship would put out, if not actually like a metal song in itself. 'Neuromancer' suffers because the keyboards take up too much of the sonic space, decreasing the impact of the riffing. 'Into The Heart of Danger' tries to be menacing but the arrangement is too steeped in pop-rock sensibilities that would not be out of place on a Foreigner album for this to really work. It's an engaging song, but one of too many that reduce the impact of the album.

I realise this is a matter of personal taste, but the constant, upfront presence of poppy keyboards starts to tire me out after a while. The keyboard player is working very hard to make each song bright, shiny and catchy and after some time I wish he'd stop vomiting out so much varnish over songs that were never really so grainy in texture to begin with that they needed this much sheen slathered over them. Many of these songs would have worked a lot better if the keyboards and the AoR/80s pop metal tactics had been dialed back a bit in favour of a more classic metal approach. Others were never that strong to begin with and the efforts to make them accessible bleed them of any power they may have had - surely not a good thing on a power metal album?

So, once again, I am confronted with a power metal album that isn't consistently powerful enough, and is metal in a very arena-friendly, bubblegum sort of manner. That makes it sound worse than it really is, perhaps, and I can imagine spinning this album again when I'm in the mood for something effervescent and laced with metal attitude, if not enough actual metal crunch, and of course lots and lots of wonderfully attention-seeking guitar and keyboard solos. A generic slab of modern European power metal, no more and no less.

Edited to add: After writing this, I listened to Battle Beast's debut, 'Steel' in it's entirety, and holey leather jockstraps, it's everything I wanted the sophomore album to be. Ideally, Valo will return to the band and propel them back to the heady metallic glory of this incredibly powerful and still pleasingly cheesy power metal album. 

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