Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Twilight Force's 'Heroes of Mighty Magic' - Album Review

As I mentioned in my review of Sabaton's recent album, power metal seems to be slowly on the decline. This is quite a sad thing for me to come to terms with, as power metal was probably the first subgenre of metal that I got into in a big way, but it is hardly surprising given the limited scope of the genre in the first place. It has had it's own mini life cycle too: starting with Helloween and Stratovarius in the late 1980s/early 1990s; taken to quirkier territory with Sonata Arctica; and taken as far as it could possibly go (and back again) by Rhapsody of Fire. Rhapsody of Fire are probably the epitome of power metal in it's purest form, with soaring melodies, neo-classical lead guitar and keyboard runs, fantasy-inspired lyrics, and an epic symphonic backing. They pushed the genre as far as it could go, and probably ended up killing it in the process as no-one else could be more epic! These days, it seems power metal rests in the hands of Gloryhammer (and Sabaton, but they have transcended power metal now). While I do enjoy Gloryhammer's tongue-in-cheek power metal, and both their albums are extremely enjoyable, Gloryhammer are to power metal what Steel Panther are to hair metal. Power metal has been crying out for a new 'pure' act to carry the torch, and that act might have been found in Sweden's Twilight Force. They formed in 2011, and released their debut album Tales of Ancient Prophecies in 2014, but it was not until they signed to Nuclear Blast Records more recently that they started to get more attention. The results of this new partnership is the band's second album, the awfully titled Heroes of Mighty Magic (the music contained is far better than the title suggests, honestly..). Everything that was great about Tales of Ancient Prophecies has been included here and turned up to 11. Heroes of Mighty Magic is almost double the length of it's predecessor, and has much more going on. Sometimes there is almost too much going on, and the mix gets cluttered and it is hard to hear what is going on (the way early DragonForce albums do), but the melodies and songwriting here is always very strong. Guitarist Lynd and keyboardist Blackwald (yes, they all have awful stage names too..) have formed a solid songwriting partnership now and are set to be the future of epic power metal. They are aided by frontman Chrileon who has an extremely strong voice and a powerful range. With Heroes of Mighty Magic, Twilight Force are staking their claim to be the successors to Rhapsody of Fire, and may give power metal the kiss of life it needs!

Eschewing the usual cinematic intro so typical of power metal albums, Twilight Force steam straight into Battle of Arcane Might with a jaunty keyboard melody atop a crunchy rhythm guitar base. The song is your typical power metal fare, with a galloping verse that allowed Chrileon's strong vocals to dominate, before a soaring chorus takes over with plenty of keyboard layers and choral backing vocals. The lead guitar is very much in the Yngwie Malmsteen-esque neo-classical mould throughout and Lynd unleashes his first of many six-string attacks on this song, before a galloping, symphonic instrumental mid-section successfully takes over. Powerwind is the album's lead single, and opens out with something that sounds like it would sit nicely on a fantasy video game's soundtrack. This song is a microcosm of everything that makes Twilight Force a successful power metal act, but also showcases the cluttered production described earlier. Blackwald's synth leads throughout are extremely catchy, and the song's chorus could be the best on the album. Chrileon's high notes are something to behold, and he carries the song's melodies effortlessly as this simple bombastic number progresses. Rhapsody of Fire have not sounded this joyous for many a year now, and - despite the sound issues -  this is a fine example of epic power metal at it's very best. Opening with a dramatic renaissance string melody, Guardian of the Seas soon becomes a shredding lead guitar workout for Lynd, although the production blunts the impact somewhat. This song has more bite than the previous two however, with gothic, Gregorian-esque choral vocals throughout and some excellent fast-paced drumming from new drummer De'Azsh. This is a powerful song, but the chorus is really let down by the production as Chrileon's vocals are almost totally lost at times. That leaves Lynd to be the star of the show, with plenty of explosive lead guitar breaks that are some of the most memorable heard in the genre for some time. Flight of the Sapphire Dragon starts off fairly placidly, but soon picks up the pace with some more soaring keyboard melodies and an anthemic gang vocal chant. This is one of the album's best songs, with a smooth verse that sounds a little like early Sonata Arctica crossed with Rhapsody of Fire's The Village of Dwarves (in fact, some of the keyboard melodies and sounds used here are similar to that song). The chorus is very upbeat, with plenty of strong vocal melodies to draw you in. It ends on what is probably the most ridiculous, yet amazing, bit of vocal gymnastics on the album, and ensures the song sticks in the mind. There and Back Again is a ten minute epic that ticks all the boxes, but never really amounts to being the epic is tries to be. In one piece of wish-fulfilment however, Fabio Lione (Labyrinth; Rhapsody of Fire; Vision Divine; Angra) duets with Chrileon throughout the song to add a bit of class. Their voices are so similar however, that is often difficult to tell who is singing when (the muddy production does not help). There are lots of stand out moments throughout the song, but it does not really hold together as a proper 'epic' that well. There is a song later in the album that does this much better!

Riders of the Dawn gets back to the shorter songs found on the early part of the album. I know I have been using Rhapsody of Fire for comparisons throughout this review so far, but this song really sounds like the Italian metal giants. If someone played me this song blind, I would have actually thought it was them! That is no bad thing however, and it rock with a storming chorus that actually sounds great and shows Twilight Force can produce music that sounds great from a production point of view. I imagine this song will become a live favourite for this chorus alone, but the lengthy guitar workout is also impressive. Lynd is the genre's new guitar hero, and this song showcases why. In comparison Keepers of Fate falls flat and fails to live up to the excellence of the previous number. The melodies here just are not that memorable compared to other songs on the album. It just never seems to get going, despite steaming along at a decent pace throughout and containing more good guitar playing. Rise of a Hero opens with a strong orchestral melody, before the playful verse kicks in with some child-like vocals in places, that work well in comparison to the full-bloodied delivery throughout, and this sits well with the very upbeat orchestral sounds the song uses. The instrumental mid-section is the highlight of the song however, with some fantastic keyboard and guitar interplay that really bring to mind those early Rising Force albums that made Yngwie Malmsteen a household name in the 1980s. To the Stars is another extremely catchy number that is sure to become a live favourite, with big gang vocal sections that will very fun to sing along to live. It is songs like this that prove that the simpler approach to songwriting brings more success to Twilight Force. The songs where the melodies are more in-your-face are the strongest, and shows that good power metal plays on these facts rather than bury them beneath a host of other musical layers. The final 'proper' song on the album is the epic title track, which is much more of a success than There and Back Again. Joakim Brodén (Sabaton) provides some guest vocals here. and his gruff voice provides a good contrast to Chrileon's soaring delivery. This is a song that is made up of quite a few bits, but they all fit together seamlessly and the song races by in what seems like far less than it's actual length. It provides a good end to the album, and shows that the band probably have a strong future in the genre. Two more tracks follow however, and they really knock the momentum of the album on the head and give the album a strange ending. The first is an entirely spoken word piece called Epilogue that goes on for over six minutes. I assume this is trying to tell the album's story, but since no clear story presents itself while listening, this mini audiobook feels totally unnecessary and cheesy (although not as terrible as the spoken word sections on the debut album). The second is an orchestral outro called Knights of Twilight's Might that just feels pointless after the weird spoken word track. The album should have ended with the title track, and these final two 'songs' only serve to damage the overall impact of the album. Overall, Heroes of Mighty Magic is a strong album of power metal anthems by a band that is sure to be the new torchbearers for the genre. My issues with the production and the album's ending aside, this is a great piece of work and I am sure this band will have a great and epic future.

The album was released on 26th August 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's official video for Powerwind.

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