This installment of Obscure Metal Roundup is nothing if not a traditional metal showcase. There’s no principled reason for this; I have not up and decided to ignore the constellations of subgenres metal has to offer in a fit of regressive distaste for anything other than clean vocals and tonal solos. It’s just that I’m on a traditional kick as of late. It’s what I’m listening to these days, and therefore, it’s what I’m chronicling in this space, for the moment. I see no value in pretending that this column is curated by anything other than my whims.
That said, any time I get deep in the weeds with traditional stuff, I become gravely concerned that my palate is regressing. For years and years, traditional was all I would listen to, unless you count Big 4 thrash and adjacent acts as it’s own thing. While I get that the rise of thrash was point of evolutionary divergence in metal’s history, I’d argue that the Big 4 are known to all with even a passing interest in the genre, to the point that they shouldn’t count as non-traditional for the purposes of evaluating a listener’s degree of adventurousness. Back in the day, it took me actual listening effort to get into fucking Opeth, and this was back in the early aughts, when Opeth ruled the damn universe!
My point is that any time I find myself listening to traditional metal almost exclusively, as has been the case in the past few weeks, I start worrying that I’m regressing as a person. I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds with respect to the horrors of Rob in the early aughts, but suffice to say that Rob is dead, and will not be missed. But traditional metal is still plenty of fun in moderation, and I know none of you are here to listen to narcissistic meta babbling about the neuroses that fuel my writing process, so time to get on with it.
Legendry – The Wizard and the Tower Keep (Released 2019)
How epic is too epic? At what point does a work crumble under the weight of its own scope? Where is the line between a sweeping cataclysm of awesomeness and a dense chore?
These are the questions that listening to The Wizard and the Tower Keep inspires, as it is an album that walks right up to the threshold between epic and tedious, gets up on its tiptoes to tempt fate even further, then engages in a cartoonish flailing of limbs to keep itself from teetering over the edge. I’m not positive it succeeds in staying upright, either.
So here’s the problem with this album. There’s only seven tracks here, spread across a 47-minute run time. That’s not a problem in and of itself; the problem is that, the longer a track is, the less it seems to have going on. Four of the tracks are in excess of seven minutes, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why any of them should be that long. Not enough stuff happens in these songs! The length is given over to mid-tempo jamming, with little prog trickery or hooks to keep the track engaging. The Lost Road is the exception that proves the rule, with a pretty dang sweet first half that gives way to a back half that is fine, I guess, but is still too long for its own good.
It’s not that these jams create an actively unpleasant listening experience, it’s that the album ends up fading into the background during these passages. That’s not what you want in metal, and as I’ve seen far too many times in doing this column, it works against the band’s actual strengths. There’s only two tracks here that are both rocking and under 5 minutes (opener The Bard’s Tale is also shorter, but is fully acoustic), and both of them are vastly superior to any of the longer tracks. Behind the Summoner’s Seal provides more thrilling change ups and sick leads than anything else on the album, despite its lack of length.
I’m also a fan of the production, which marries charmingly primitive, sludgy guitar sounds with fat, all-consuming bass, even though it underscores the unrealized potential on display. If the whole album was like was as sharp as the shorter stuff, and the uh…epics displayed greater ambition than length for length’s sake, it would slay.
Standout Tracks: Vindicator, The Lost Road, Behind the Summoner’s Seal
Greyhawk – Keepers of the Flame (Released 2020)
Keepers of the Flame suffers similarly; there are songs here that trend towards the long and sluggish. Not much happens, unless you count extended chant-along “whoa-oh-oa” sections as cathartic, and I don’t except in rare circumstances. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that Greyhawk display a much greater understanding of the value of brevity. The songs here are shorter, more energetic, and more engaging. This is trad metal done right – medium fast to fast riffs excellent supporting grooves, flashy but musical leads and guitar solos, and a vocalist that prioritizes power over range. On top of that, not all of the longer songs are slogs. The excellent Don’t Wait for the Wizard clocks in north of 5 minutes, but uses that length to present cool riffs, a rad chorus hook, and satisfying changes. Black Peak seems like it may be a drag, but then smartly and subtly revs up en route to the payoff.
While Keepers of the Flame is an exceptional collection, it’s not perfect. Like I said, there a few tracks that feel like filler, and could have stood to be reworked (the closing title track and The Rising Sign spring immediately to mind, here) or cut entirely. I’m also not a huge fan of instrumental R.X.R.O; even though I generally dig instrumental tracks, this one seems to exemplify the stock arguments lobbed against them, being a bit of a hook desert. Also, I know I praised the vocalist for exhibiting good taste just a bit ago, but when he goes for his upper register, the results are decidedly uninspiring. This is one of those “high highs and medium low lows” albums. I’d recommend it to anyone, but not without qualification.
Standout Tracks: Halls of Insanity, Don’t Wait for the Wizard, Black Peak
Skelator – Cyber Metal (Released 2019)
What is it with traditional metal bands being super into hammers? First Keepers of the Flame had a song called Drop the Hammer, and here’s an album with a song called simply The Hammer. I ask this as someone who ends up playing a dwarf with a warhammer no less than 60% of the time; I see the appeal, but surely there are other weapons they can be drawing inspiration from, right? All these songs about hammers are really just metaphors for good times engaged in rockin’ out anyway. Slashing and piercing damage are just as metal, people!
Anyway, this is the most lead guitar oriented collection of the albums on offer here, and their style is pointedly neo-classical and precise. All of the leads, twin leads, and solos are very measured, tasteful, and controlled. This wouldn’t work quite as well as it does without the rhythm section, who do an excellent job of establishing propulsive but warm grooves underneath, and who mostly hang back and let the shredders to their thing; there’s barely any drum fills on here, even, and the ones that are there manage to blend into the background. The production is polished to a mirror sheen, to match.
The result is fun enough but somewhat undistinguished and anonymous power metal that is at it’s best when it’s operating a medium fast tempos. Cast Iron, Highlander, and Seven Scars are brisk and tons of fun, with the former being a quality old-school basher about rockin’, and the later bringing the epic histrionics (along with a sound clip of Sean Connery from Highlander; there’s also a clip from what I assume is the English dub of Fist of the North Star at the end of Seven Scars, since it’s a guy saying he’s the Fist of the North Star, but I’ve never seen the show so I don’t want to assume too much. I’m always fascinated with sound clips on metal albums; it’s like a secret handshake if you pick up the reference, and a recommendation from someone you know you have similar tastes to if you don’t). Erlkonig features the most exhaustive twin-lead workout; I do like how the band regards twin leads as a trick up their sleeve and not a primary riff driver.
Finally, since I was already on the subject of vocals not so long ago, it’s worth noting that the vocalist here is on the wrong side of the power/range divide. Poor guy tries his heart out, and he’s a better metal singer than I am, to be sure, but unfortunately I can’t help but admit I find his voice wispy and a bit grating. So it goes.
Standout Tracks: Cast Iron, Erlkonig, Seven Scars