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We Might Have Lived in Legends
Magnum: Stronghold
On the third days of long weekends, I write songs. Not every time, quite, and I occasionally write songs on other occasions, but when I check the notes from my small stack of inept four-track demos, there are a lot of recording dates at the ends of Mays and beginnings of Septembers. As with writing these reviews, I've found that it's best if I can work through a song in one long, uninterrupted session. Maybe "best" isn't the right term. It's most effective, in terms of actually producing a finished recording. The recordings might be better if I did them half an hour a day for three months, I suppose, but I doubt it. I do them quickly because as compositions, performances and productions, that's how much time I think they're worth. There's a switchover point where additional effort will start making them worse, instead of better, and it comes pretty early in the process for me, usually right before I essay a backing vocal. I can't sing well, I'm hard-pressed to hit more than three notes at once on a keyboard (at least on purpose), my guitar playing is rudimentary to be kind, and my drum-machine programs usually sound like the work of a device that was originally intended for some other purpose. I can't write bridges at all, and my endings are laughably awkward. The lyrics gravitate, seemingly inexorably, towards a small set of emotions and motifs (romantic disappointment and, for some reason, aliens). The results are usually listenable, in some vague sense, if only because the edges of my abilities are rather abrupt, so I don't really have the option to go beyond them, even if I wanted to.
Most of the time, I don't want to. It doesn't bother me if the songs are bad. I'd like to improve, but I don't care how soon or how slowly. I write songs because the feeling, at the end of a day, when I've finished one and I can play it back and listen and know that I did that, that I am capable of making something I'd enjoy listening to, is absolutely incredible. Without a control, I can't say for certain whether it's radically transformed my experience of other people's music, but it's appealing to think it has. Do we respond differently to art we can't comprehend than we do to art we can imagine, through however many levels of abstraction, having made? It's a plausible idea. But perhaps not. Or arguably my quick, sketchy, simplistic songs are so qualitatively different from Scott Miller's or Marillion's or Tori Amos' that they might as well be a totally different art form. That would be fine, too. In this particular field I am ecstatic just to participate.
But every once in a while, caught up in somebody's magnificent song that I could never have written, I do get a momentary jealous twinge. Singing along, maybe air-drumming, I slip into some kind of resonance with the music, and for a few seconds its flow seems so intuitive to me that I confuse following with leading, and think I could write songs like that, too. Historically, these moments haven't happened close enough to a recording opportunity to affect them, but one of them hit me last Sunday night, in my Golf, on the way home from dinner, so Monday morning, when I turned on my recording gear, it was still fresh in my mind. I'd been listening to an old Magnum song, and although the music was too complicated, the rhythm was pretty simple. I tend to overcomplicate my drum loops, so this time I resolved to keep them simple. I set out to write a stiff, pounding, 4/4, kick-snare-kick-snare arena-rock song, hi-hats whacking on the quarter-notes and a goofy sing-along chorus and everything. They must be easy, given what monumental idiots manage to write them, and they're certainly not beneath me, so why not?
And maybe they are easy, and maybe some day I'll succeed in writing one, but this one didn't even come close. It's stiff, but it sputters more than it pounds, the 4/4 beat somehow ends up producing three-measure verses, the chorus is so non-sing-along that I'm barely able to sing along with it myself, and the only context in which I can imagine it being played in an arena involves a crew of deaf retractable-stadium-roof operators and me pretending to be a nine-year-old with only one week left to live. It didn't help that I broke a guitar-string right away, didn't have any spares in the house nor the patience to go out and get some, and so finished the thing entirely with synthesizers, but even with the guitar, the song was never going to overcome my self-consciousness. I can bellow along with other people's songs that feature bellowing, but I haven't learned how to do it in my own songs without collapsing into hysterics. Arenas demand a blustery machismo I never feel, and can't simulate. I love Magnum dearly, but they are not my people.
In fact, I probably love them so dearly, at least in part, because they aren't my people. I think they're supposed to be kind of menacing, with the firearm name and all those battle songs, but to me machismo is either sleazy or cuddly, and Magnum are part of the same aesthetic continuum, in my view, as Pooh, or like Pooh would be if he were a fully grown adult grizzly bear with teeth and claws and everything, but still spent all his time doing half-hearted toe-touching exercises, eating honey out of pots slightly too small for his snout, scheming to capture imaginary beasts and then running away as soon as he thinks he sees them, and worrying about whether the rain is filling up any hollow trees that very small pigs live in. Magnum are the most adorable heavy metal band ever.
But they are also completely outside of any of the subgenres I follow that have subcultures associated with them, so much of the time I basically forget they exist. Which they don't, as a matter of fact, since they shut down operations a few years ago, other than a trickle of posthumous compilations I don't need. So when I came across their bin at Tower Records in London, during my trip a few weeks ago, I discovered a bunch of things I could have known about, but didn't. The first was Stronghold, a 2CD concert album billed, in a small note on the front cover, as the band's "Last Ever Live Recording". I already had a live album called The Last Dance, which I thought I remembered had made a similar claim, but The Last Dance came out in 1996, and Stronghold was dated 1997, so I grabbed it, figuring that they'd had second thoughts and played one more show.
As I quickly discerned, when I got back home and compared the two records, they are mostly the same. The Last Dance, put out by the German label SPV, has ten tracks on disc one and nine more on disc two. Stronghold, belatedly released by the London label Receiver the following year, has package art it looks like the band might actually have approved (The Last Dance has a PG-13-rated cover that seems very misplaced to me), and contains a superset of The Last Dance's audio, adding two tracks to each disc. Where the extra songs came from, it doesn't say. On the first disc the segue from ten to eleven sounds seamless, but those are easy to fake. The graft is much more obvious on the second disc, which used to end very dramatically with Bob Catley introducing the band and then saying "That was Magnum. Goodnight. Goodbye." On Stronghold he says that, there's some perfunctory, skeptical applause, and then to everybody's evident befuddlement the band plays two more songs. Why Receiver couldn't be bothered to slip the two extra tracks in anywhere else in the running order, I don't know.
Anyway, I'm glad to have a few more recordings. As I've said before, Magnum always sound exactly the same, which can either mean that Magnum live albums are superfluous by their very nature, or else that there's nothing wrong with mostly duplicating one. I'm happy to have been prompted to listen to these songs again. Of the new tracks, the performance of "Only in America" is a little over-thought and tentative (the dialogue samples don't add much, and kind of kill the momentum), but "You're the One" is open-hearted and magnificent, the acoustic-to-electric transition in "Spirit" is earth-shaking (despite their ham-fisted insistence on grinding to a dead stop in between the two parts, eliminating the last tiny chance of surprise), and the galloping version of "Days of No Trust" is about as good a five-minute summary of the Magnum aesthetic as anything. They were like Bon Jovi's swagger couched in ZZ Top's slouch, or like the band you get if you stipulate that all rock music derives from the "teenage wasteland" sections of "Baba O'Riley" and April Wine's "Sign of the Gypsy Queen". They ought to have been huge in the US, certainly bigger than Journey or Styx. But they weren't, and eventually they were no more.
Hard Rain: When the Good Times Come
Or that was where I left the story, anyway. Turns out there are some more chapters. After Magnum's dissolution, guitarist/songwriter Tony Clarkin and singer Bob Catley had some demos they wanted to finish up, and they turned out so well that they decided to recruit some new players and become a new band called Hard Rain. There was a self-titled debut I haven't heard yet, and then in 1999 this second album, When the Good Times Come. Clarkin and Catley's combined presences mean that the Magnum ties will be plenty audible, but Hard Rain is a different sort of band, bluesier and less epic than Magnum. By modern standards Magnum were probably a hard rock band, not a heavy metal band (when I was a kid Blue Öyster Cult counted as "heavy metal", "hard rock" meant the Who, and the dividing line between the two fell at about AC/DC; by now BÖC and the Who are essentially pop groups, and even AC/DC might not merit the "hard" in "hard rock"); Hard Rain exhibit even fewer metal pretenses. Second singer Sue McCloskey (victim of one truly unfortunate photograph in the booklet) nudges Clarkin and Catley away from their normal fantasy-geek impulses, and freed of Magnum's history they seem newly relaxed.
Too relaxed, possibly. As unreasonable as it seems for me to accuse Magnum of always sounding the same and then pick on the boys when they try something else, I think much of this album finds them being less adventurous, rather than more. Anybody can putter through braying, cliché-ridden semi-funk. "Eat It Up", with squealing harmonica, is distended and pedestrian, somewhere down around Whitesnake/Def-Leppard-level. "Rock Me in Ya Cradle" is like the Saturday-morning-cartoon version of a Magnum song. "When the Good Times Come" sounds worryingly like John Mellencamp receiving an enema. "Talks Like a Lady" is pro forma boogie. "Showtime" is sickly talking-blues. I don't believe anybody need more of these things.
But when they quit trying to get in touch with their roots, or whatever it is they think they're doing, Hard Rain do come up with some intriguing incremental adjustments to the Magnum noises. The glossy, mid-tempo "Who You Gonna Trust" parlays old-fashioned FM confidence, à la "All She Wants to Do Is Dance", into surging semi-metal choruses paced by McCloskey's energetic wail. "No One Can Show You the Way" is a grand power-ballad, complete with clattering piano riffs, spindly classical guitar and angelic backing choirs. McCloskey takes the lead for the elegant, bruised "An Ordinary Day", sounding part Janis Joplin, part Patty Smyth and a trace Alanis. No song called "Lightnin' Strikes" deserves to be anything but shitty, but the choruses of this one, where the band kick into gear and Catley and McCloskey ease into an exhausted duet, verge on Meat Loaf's drama. The big, thumping "Never Say Never" seems tailor-made for Rod Stewart. And the bright, slashing, synth-laced "Step Back" almost strays into echolyn and Magellan's territory. It's no replacement for Magnum, but at least Bob and Tony haven't sold their instruments and taken up cycling.
Bob Catley: Middle Earth
Bob Catley even, I discovered, has some solo albums. Sort of. They have his name on the front covers, and he sings, but the music is written and produced by Gary Hughes of the band Ten, the rest of whom also show up to play it. The credits are a little vague about who wrote the lyrics, so maybe those are Bob's. A histrionic semi-progressive semi-metal album titled Middle Earth had damn well better be a concept album based on The Lord of the Rings, and it is. One might reasonably have assumed that there was a worldwide ban on re-settings of Tolkien in effect while Peter Jackson works on the movies, but maybe Catley and Hughes didn't hear about it. Jackson needn't be too upset, I think, as after listening to this album casually, several times, I still couldn't have quoted any specific Tolkien references. In some cases, the relevance is pretty subtle. Take the one word "shire" out of "The Fields That I Recall" and it becomes a completely generic song about the way your childhood haven changes when you grow up and see how the world surrounds it. Snip out the one verse in the blustery, heavily Meat Loaf-like "The City Walls" that mentions Isengard and Helms Deep and you've got a war song otherwise free of geographic or historical specificity (except "our shields to the Hun"? were there Huns I'm forgetting in Tolkien?). "Where You Lead I'll Follow" is sung to Gandalf, "The End of the Summer" about Galadriel, but I can't tell who the speakers are supposed to be in either case. A couple songs toss in references to returning the ring to the fire. The only song with the referential density I expect is "Emissary", which amounts to a reiteration of the central Ring legend ("Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky", etc.).
Hughes' music, for the most part, circles around a nexus approximately equidistant from Magnum, Meat Loaf and Magellan, with an occasional digression into what could be interstitial music from Marillion's Misplaced Childhood. I don't mind any of those styles, and it's certainly the kind of backing I'm used to hearing behind Catley's voice, but it does leave me wondering why, if this is what Catley wants to sound like, he doesn't just talk Clarkin into putting the band back together. And, apparently, that may be happening. The one song from Middle Earth that I'd consider salvaging for a reformed Magnum's repertoire is both the most Magnum-ish section here, musically, and the one in the most lyrical peril of getting sucked into a metal-cliché vortex, "Return of the Mountain King". Savatage's "The Hall of the Mountain King" is the pinnacle of ludicrous D&D-centric metal histrionics, to me, in both the best and worst senses, but to be fair, "Return of the Mountain King" hasn't Savatage's rococo frenzy, and except for the line with the title in it, the song is an intriguingly wistful portrait of a sense of destiny. "The mystic halls, tonight / Resound and canonize; / From ashes to dust, / This nightmare might just be over". It is the same haunting, restless conviction of potential that the suburbs couldn't engender in Rush's "Subdivisions", and a strain of the same awe and wonder in Runrig's Amazing Things. This might be the one feeling that goes farthest to explain how my love of anthemic progressive rock has survived my immersions in practically every contrary rock form invented since I was ten, how no amount of Low and Mecca Normal and Aube's bracing realities can convince me that it isn't also valid to lie back, look up in the stars, and dream that we might have lived in legends.
Savatage: Poets and Madmen
It proves something about the nature of the gods, I think, that Savatage and Helloween, the two bands who most richly deserved, on symbolic grounds, to take the fall for the death of old-school Euro-metal (although Savatage are from Florida), are still stubbornly making records. Savatage, in fact, despite what I consider to be the third worst name in all of metal (behind Helloween, of course, but neither of them quite as offensively obtuse, in my opinion, as Genocide), have made a series of increasingly ambitious concept albums in which, unusually for metal, "ambitious" isn't a coy way of saying "based on some book we loved when we were twelve in which Good and Evil were far easier to distinguish than they ever are in life". And this is even how the introduction to Poets and Madmen begins: "Things that are abandoned by the adult world tend to have a nearly irresistible allure to the young." The abandoned thing, in this case, is an old asylum, which three kids break into for the thrill of illicit exploration. But that isn't the story, it's just a weirdly plaintive frame tale. In the bowels of the abandoned asylum they discover one person, presumably once a patient, still somehow living there in his cell. So far, it's a ghost story. It becomes a whole lot more than a ghost story when they notice that the man's file is still there in a folder by the door of his cell. He is Kevin Carter, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning photojournalist and, in real-life, suicide, previously also the subject of a Manic Street Preachers song. The conceit of Poets and Madmen is that he didn't kill himself, he had himself committed, but the asylum was closed before he felt his treatment was complete, so he found a way to return. The album is his rambling internal monologue as he continues to try to make sense of human suffering and human indifference. Or that's what I think it is, anyway. Although the frame tale is perfectly explicit, the lyrics are unglossed. There's a polaroid of a girl in a white bikini with "The only reason I have left is you" written on the back (this snapshot is actually fabricated and inserted loose into the booklet, Griffin and Sabine-style), which the frame-tale implies was part of the real Carter story, but which doesn't figure in the thumbnail biographies I've read, and is only obliquely referred to by the lyrics. "Stay With Me Awhile" reads like Carter inviting the kids to stay and hear his story, but in the frame-tale he refuses to address them, so I take this to be his fantasy that he talks to them, leaving unexplained why he doesn't. "There in the Silence" and "Commissar" are conversations with the empty building, or possibly Carter's conversation with himself about the conversation he wants to be having with it, rationalizing his presence. "I Seek Power" is terrifying and furious, as if Carter thinks that by removing himself from the world he is worming his way closer to the heart of it, from where he can strike a fatal blow, a hypothesis which has its own distorted logic. The chugging, exuberant car anthem "Drive" takes on a completely different significance if you think that it's being sung from the perspective of a photographer famous for having taken pictures out of a speeding truck while being fired on by Sudanese rebels. "The Rumor" is part of an argument with God, "Man in the Mirror" an internal debate about suicide. And "Got to Get Back to a Reason", the power-ballad/news-report-collage finale, ends the story with the line from the back of the picture of the girl. So either I'm wildly misinterpreting this whole thing, or else Savatage have constructed a concept album in which a real person famous for having written, in his suicide note, "The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist", is reimagined as a fictional character who fought through his grief and was eventually rescued by something as simple as a girl, by a happy snapshot that is the antithesis of the image of a Rwandan child dying under the watchful eye of a waiting vulture for which he won the Pulitzer. A part of me thinks this is insulting, that turning Carter's existential grief into a romance trivializes it. He saw so many people die, how could one pretty girl counterbalance them? But then again, in a way that's the soul of hope: the ability to cling to a tiny joy amidst the horrors. That was exactly what Carter failed to believe, and what we, if we're not to follow him, must.
Musically, though, it's another Savatage album, and if you can't take their combination of brutal Sabbath-ic grind, Queen-esque operatics and 2112-ish multi-part song structures, it won't much matter whether they're reading from Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. Until I read the frame tale, I hadn't the slightest idea what the album's concept was, and a cynic might wonder which came first. Singer Zak Stevens left the band after The Wake of Magellan, so keyboardist and original vocalist Jon Oliva takes over all vocals again, and between his voice and a slight shift of emphasis from keyboards back towards guitars, the resulting music could easily have been recorded a decade ago. Did you care about metal a decade ago? Have you cared since? If you didn't, or don't, Savatage aren't likely to change your mind, but even if not, they do seem determined to prove that you're missing something.
Helloween: The Dark Ride
You'll get no such sophistication, or occasion for regret, from Helloween. The last Helloween album, 1999's Metal Jukebox, found them performing deadpan Helloween-style covers of the Scorpions, Jethro Tull, ABBA, David Bowie, Faith No More, the Beatles, Focus, Alex Harvey, Frank Marino, Cream and Babe Ruth, and was exactly as preposterous as you suppose. My continued support for their doltish oeuvre, especially in light of my renunciation of Guided by Voices, is probably not my finest demonstration of clear moral principle and character integrity. But I guess I believe that, at some level, they understand exactly what a goofy spectacle they constitute, and while awareness isn't quite the same as intent, it's enough for me to enjoy both the things I sincerely enjoy about Helloween, and the things I think are monumentally moronic.
So I'll take it as a reward for my persistence that The Dark Ride is far less stupid than anybody had any reason to expect. The cover illustration has no globe-breasted dominatrices, for once, and lends the band's name and logo about as much dignity as they're ever going to get without changing them. The music, via the simple-seeming expedient of not splattering hyperactive lead guitars over every available measure of rhythm-guitar churn, reestablishes some of the classic heaviness that I'm not sure Helloween ever had this much of to begin with. The lyrics are hardly literary, and if you can't stand such stereotypical metal flourishes as a gruffly chanted "Mirror, mirror, on the wall" or a shrill "If I could fly / Like a king of the sky, / [I] could not tumble nor fall, / [I] would picture it all", forget it. But if you can, I'm dismayed and pleased to report that I think Helloween have made an eminently decent metal record. "Mr. Torture" is silly, but only in proportion to its tempo and timbre. "All Over the Nations" is fast, melodic and uncluttered. "Escalation 666" is poised and grim, not that far removed from Fates Warning. The crunching "Mirror, Mirror" sounds like a fugitive from a late-Eighties Metal Blade comp. "If I Could Fly" could easily be a pop-metal transposition of Roxette's "Wish I Could Fly". "Salvation" is a relatively unrehabilitated florid sprint, but "The Departed" is as close as anybody has gotten to Queensrÿche's "Walk in the Shadows" since, maybe including Queensrÿche themselves, and if the spare, bass-heavy "I Live for Your Pain" had been done by a band I'd never heard of, I have a feeling I'd be heralding them as metal's great new hope. "We Damn the Night" is like Slayer verses with Scorpions choruses. The symphonic "Immortal" is a little this side of self-parody, certainly no more embarrassing than recent Metallica. And "The Dark Ride", lest you over- (or under-) estimate Helloween, pulls out all their old stops one more time, nine minutes of machine-gun bass-drums, carpal-tunnel-syndrome-inducing bass and rhythm-guitar ostinatos, faintly German-accented shrieking and an ample supply of guitar solos performed with all the subtlety of emptying a pachinko machine into a pile of harps. They're still stuck with the second worst name in metal, in my opinion, but after sixteen years and nearly that many albums, I think they may be starting to overcome it.
Ice Age: liberation
If you want new progressive metal (and I'm not exactly besieged with notes reading "Yeah, Savatage and Helloween are fab, but I need more!", but somebody other than me must like this stuff), there are basically only three labels you need to know about. The first is Magna Carta, home of old Enchant records, Magellan, lots of Terry Bozzio and Dream Theater spin-offs and by far the world's geekiest collection of geeky tribute albums on which today's geekiest prog-rock bands pay tribute to yesterday's. By default I assume I want all new Magna Carta releases, although very rarely their press blurb for one convinces me to skip it. The press-release for liberation, the second album by Ice Age, is absurdly overblown, but when I put it through my Magna Carta PR Processor, which consists of stripping out everything except references to other prog bands, I get "Rush, Dream Theater, Planet X, Winger, Yes, Kansas, Marillion", and while the Winger thing is ominous, my basic rule is that if there are more citations from the set Yes, Rush, Marillion, Queensrÿche, Dream Theater and Fates Warning than there are from the set Yngwie Malmsteen, Kansas, Styx, Saga and Hawkwind (where Hawkwind counts as two points), I'll probably like it.
Sure enough, I like this. The press-release was much longer than it needed to be: Ice Age sound like Dream Theater did before they started sounding like Journey, but a little more cheerful, a little more prog and a little less metal. I don't hear enough Styx to merit alarm-raising. This is genre fare, but it's good solid genre fare. Given Dream Theater's drift, Ice Age are probably in as good a position as anybody to take over as the genre's new standard-bearers. They play very well, the songs are long and complicated without appreciable noodling, there's a poetic protest-song about Tibet, another one called "The Guardian of Forever", and one that's a part three of something whose first part is on the previous album, and whose second part must still be to come. Now you know enough.
Shadow Gallery: Legacy
Shadow Gallery was the second band to sign to Magna Carta, back in 1991 (Magellan were the first), so by this point they have comfortable label seniority. Legacy is their fourth album. My filter reduces the press-release for this record to "Rush, Yngwie Malmsteen, Magellan", which is a toss-up according to my rule, but since I already have and like the other Shadow Gallery records, they get a bye through the qualifying process. Maybe they're aware of this, and of their established status, because Legacy seems much less anxious to make an startling first impression. The heavy, complicated parts are just as heavy and complicated as anything on liberation, but there are fewer of them, and more of these songs are given the space to evolve, instead of slamming through so many twists and switchbacks. There are more piano lines and fewer synthesizers, more airy vocal harmonies, more lead-guitar hooks you can hum without having to have them slowed down. And "First Light", the final track, is longer than most indie bands' whole albums.
Threshold: Hypothetical
The second label is Century Media, headquartered in Santa Monica, who are responsible for the US presences of Angra, the Gathering, Iced Earth and Voivod, but Century also handle a daunting profusion of death-, black- and otherwise-hyphenated metal bands, so mere presence in their catalog doesn't assure progressiveness. Century also distributes the third label you should know about, which is Inside Out, home of Arena, recent Enchant records, Pallas, Spock's Beard, TransAtlantic and several more Dream Theater side-projects. Threshold are recent arrivals to Inside Out, having put out their first five albums on IQ's label Giant Electric Pea, but they've been around since 1989, and have toured with Conception, Dream Theater and Enchant, so they arrive with a certain amount of instant seniority, and after being plagued with cast defections, they have finally managed to make two albums in a row with the same line-up, including singer Andrew McDermott. Compared to the Magna Carta bands, Threshold are much more guitar-centric, using synthesizers as accompanying instruments more often than leads, and the most straight-ahead metal songs here, particularly the dense "Light and Space" and the thundering "Long Way Home", tend to be darker and simpler than any of Ice Age's or Shadow Gallery's. Threshold's experiments tend towards legato melodies over restrained atmosphere, rather than high-speed performance overkill, and there's even a section of "Sheltering Sky" when it seems to me for a few measures that they've extracted the metal elements of REO Speedwagon. "Keep My Head", on the other hand, veers dangerously towards the precipice of soft-rock, and the eleven-minute epic "Narcissus", immediately after it, seems a little too anxious to assert its complexity, like the prog-rock version of Steve Martin and John Candy leaping out of bed and trying to discuss the Chicago Bears.
ARK: Burn the Sun
The Inside Out situation is complicated, slightly, by the fact that the German wing and the American one are operated separately, and do not automatically duplicate each other's entire catalogs. Spock's Beard, for example, are on Metal Blade in the US, and Pallas don't have distribution here at all. ARK is another InsideOut Germany band the American branch hasn't picked up. Not only do I not know why, unless it's that they think Americans are still a little too scared of bands started by guys with slashes through the "o"s in their names, but Burn the Sun is easily my favorite of this entire batch. It's the second album since Conception guitarist Tore Østby and TNT drummer John Macaluso started the band (and no, I don't know what ARK are the initials of), recorded as a quintet with singer Jorn Lande from The Snakes, well-traveled session bassist Randy Coven and keyboardist Mats Olausson. Lande's voice is more hard rock than metal, but that only reminds me how much that was true about some of my favorite old metal bands, most notably Sabbath during the Dio and Gillan tenures. On "Noose" Lande does a fairly uncanny Dio impersonation, and parts of "Burn the Sun" sound remarkably like Gillan's vocals on Sabbath's Born Again, but at other points Lande reminds me of Peter Gabriel ("Heal the Waters"), Paul Rodgers ("I Bleed") and even Steve Perry (certain quavers in "Missing You"). The composite effect reminds me pleasantly of one of my favorite scruffy, short-lived hard-rock/metal bands, Law and Order.
Oddly, since I think like quite a few more non-metal progressive bands than I do non-progressive metal bands at this point, ARK is clearly more the latter. "Heal the Waters" races along on lock-sync guitar/bass grooves, and I keep expecting it to break into Dio's "Rainbow in the Dark". "Torn" has some busy, Rush-like bass, but otherwise seems closer in spirit to "Run to the Hills"-era Iron Maiden to me. "Burn the Sun" itself might be the least apologetic hard-rock-tinged metal song I've heard since Metal Church's "Date With Poverty". The verses of "Resurrection" seem a bit lost, but the choruses approach the sad majesty of UFO. The thrashing "Absolute Zero" wouldn't be too far out of character for Strapping Young Lad (Devin Townsend solo is another InsideOut Germany signing they haven't imported to the US yet). I could probably do without the wispy mock-flamenco, Level 42 bubbliness and strange Seal allusions in "Just a Little", and "Waking Hour" is a little slow, but "Noose" is menacing and strident, and "Feed the Fire" combines jumpy half-punk verses with elegantly hazy rock choruses on the order of Fates Warning. And "Missing You" starts out distractedly, but the last three minutes or so of its nine are livid and cathartic. And after another record of songs about pain, conflict, solitude and broken hearts, shattered faith, space travel, inhumanity, sacrifice, anonymity and meaninglessness, this finale too is a love song. "I sent you a letter," Lande explains. "I thought it'd be better than calling you." But better yet, apparently, a loud song about her silence. And peering over this pile of loud songs into the silence we're trying not to share, I'll sing anything that defies it.
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