Sunday, 27 September 2015

Praying Mantis' 'Legacy' - Album Review

Despite being a big part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (MWOBHM) movement in the early 1980s, England's Praying Mantis have always sounded different to the titans (and also-rans) of that genre. With feet in both the traditional heavy metal and AOR camps, they are poppier than Iron Maiden but have a harder edge than Foreigner; which makes them a slight anomaly. Their debut album, Time Tells No Lies from 1981, is easily the band's best known work. Brothers guitarist Tino and bassist Chris Troy have always been the cornerstone of the band, co-writing many of the band's songs and being ever-present throughout their history. Members have come and gone, but the Troy brothers have remained faithful to Praying Mantis. Quite a lot of famous faces have graced the band throughout the years. Guitarist Dennis Stratton (Iron Maiden) was with the band throughout the whole of the 1990s and played on many of the band's albums, and many singers who have made their names with other bands have also had (often very short) stints in the band. The vocals have always been my biggest problem with Praying Mantis' music. The soaring, melodic nature of their music demands a stellar vocalist and the band have never really been able to find one. Doogie White (Rainbow; Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force; Michael Schenker's Temple of Rock), Gary Barden (Michael Schenker Group), and John Sloman (Uriah Heep) have all had stints in Praying Mantis, but no-one has ever stuck around long enough to really make a mark. None of these singers ever turned in their greatest performances for Praying Mantis either, which did not help! This all changed in 2013 however, when the band announced that the Dutch duo of vocalist John Cuijpers and drummer Hans in t'Zandt were joining the band's ranks. I saw the band at the Cambridge Rock Festival that year, and they blew me away. I so pleased, Praying Mantis had finally found a singer that did their material justice. Since that set two years ago, I have been waiting for new material. Last month Legacy, the band's tenth studio album, was released - and I was not disappointed. Legacy is the Praying Mantis album I have always wanted. Their trademark mix of duel lead guitars, strong vocal harmonies, and keyboard overtones is present here as expected, but the quality is just increased considerably due to Cuijpers' performance. The whole band are on fire here, and all five members deliver strong performances. This is easily my favourite Praying Mantis album (although I've not heard them all as many are hard to get hold of these days) and I hope this will be a big success for the band.

Fight for Your Honour really sets the tone for the album, as the dual lead guitars of Tino Troy and Andy Burgess herald instantly reinforce that Praying Mantis sound. Cuijpers immediately impresses with a strong vocal performance, especially during the infectious chorus. The use of keyboards seems to have increased somewhat on this album, with most of the songs here making use of them somewhere. In this song, they form part of the main riff, and add to the AOR feel of the band. Unsurprisingly, the guitar work is great throughout, and a great solo added near the end that is packed full of melody. Those who are big fans of the AOR side of the band's sound will love The One. The Def Leppard-esque opening guitar melody gives way into smooth verse with a pulsing bassline. Big backing vocal arrangements help to add to the 1980s feel of the song and the understated chorus only gets better with repeated listens. It shows Praying Mantis' knack for creating infectious melodies, and is a standout track on the album. Believable is another slab of prime AOR, and one that hits you right between the eyes from the off. The twin guitar riff is very memorable, and the piano that sits in the background throughout just adds to the overall melody. The chorus is very strong too, with subtle strings and plenty of big backing vocals to add to Cuijpers powerful lead. Tokyo is one of the songs that stood out to me on my first listen to Legacy and, while other songs have overtaken it for me now, it is still a great tune. There are plenty of breaks of spacey lead guitar throughout, which are aided by the keyboard arrangements, and Cuijpers seems to be channelling Dio somewhat with his expressive vocal delivery. Rather unsurprisingly, the band has incorporated some Eastern-sounding elements to this song, but unlike other bands, they are very subtle and add to the overall song than dominate it. Praying Mantis' sound is still intact, and the heavy guitar solo section shows why they were a part of the NWOBHM movement. Better Man moves away from the AOR somewhat, and instead presents us with a slower, heavier song that has a slight dark edge. Big, crunching chords and Cuijpers howling vocals are the dominant factors throughout the song, and it packs a punch because it is different to what has come before. Keyboards still play a part however, and the melody they play during the chorus actually sounds like something that could have been on an early Marillion album. This is another song that has grown on me quite a lot since first hearing it, and it is another really solid song from the band. All I See sees a return to the smoothness of the album's earlier songs, and is a real showcase for Cuijpers' voice. Nothing else really dominates here, and the vocal melodies drive the song and are king. This song proves that Praying Mantis made the right choice in hiring Cuijpers, and that is probably the best vocalist the band have ever had.

The second half of the album is certainly not as strong as the first, but there is still plenty to enjoy here. Eyes of a Child is another heavier song. The verses are build around some dramatic, staccato guitar stabs, which are backed up by a great keyboard arrangement. The chorus is a powerful one, with some epic melodies; but is the end of the song that is the best. A dual guitar solo showcases the best of Tino Troy and Burgess, before a great riff and drum pattern bring the song to a heavier close. The Runner is an upbeat rocker with plenty of dual guitar moments, jaunty riffs, and catchy moments. The chorus is probably one of the album's best. Keyboards on this song are played by Don Garbutt (whereas on the rest of the album they are handled by the Troy brothers and Burgess), and he lays down a great synth solo mid-way through. This adds something a little different to the song, and helps it to stand out. It makes me wonder why Praying Mantis have never thought to hire a full-time keyboardist and expand this part of their sound more, as this song shows what a great effect keyboards have on their sound. Against the World is an epic track that makes full use of the fact the band poses two great guitarists. The guitars are always doing something interesting here, whether it is laying down a great riff, or launching into another great lead section, the guitars dominate this song. Not to be outdone though, the chorus here is still very memorable, with some excellent vocal melodies that you cannot help but sing along with. The album's last couple of tracks are, unfortunately, probably the two weakest here. This is a shame as the album is so strong up to this point, and it does mean the album ends on a slightly disappointing note (I say slightly as the album leaves a great impression on me either way). Fallen Angel, despite containing some great guitar work, outstays it's welcome somewhat. This is a problem I have with quite a lot of the band's older material. They have often written songs that last a minute or two longer than necessary, and this song has some of that problem. Still, there is still some impressive guitar playing throughout and Cuijpers once again delivers a solid performance. Second Time Around, the album's closing number, just suffers from being a little samey without delivering any standout melodies or ideas of it's own. If this was positioned in the middle of the album, I would probably enjoy it more, but an album closer needs to be more epic and memorable. Something like Eyes of a Child would have suited this position better, and Second Time Around feels a little like filler in comparison. Overall, despite my issues with the final couple of numbers, Legacy is a really great album from Praying Mantis. As I said before, this is my favourite album the band has done (of the ones I have heard anyway), and I am sure I will be enjoying it for a long time. Now all we need is a UK tour!

The album was released on 21st August 2015 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Fight for Your Honour.

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