Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Firewind's 'Immortals' - Album Review

It has been a while since the world heard from Firewind. It has been five years since the Greek power metal band's last album, 2012's Few Against Many, and the band has largely been on hiatus since concluding the touring cycle for that album at the end of 2012. The following year longstanding frontman Apollo Papathanasio, who joined Firewind in 2006 and recorded four albums with the band, left citing the reason that he could no longer keep up with the band's touring schedules (although I would not be surprised if he was actually fired for similar reasons). While Papathanasio was never the genre's most powerful singer, he was a captivating singer with a distinct voice that added a certain bluesy element to Firewind's sound. There is no doubt that the band grew in stature with him at the microphone, and was certainly one of the reasons for the band's growing popularity during his 12 year membership. It was clear that Firewind had become stuck in a bit of a rut by this point however. Few Against Many, while containing some really excellent songs, was certainly weaker than much of what the band had put out before. I think part of the problem was that bandleader and guitarist Gus G. was burning the candle at both ends at the time. While G. was certainly used to being in a number of bands at any one time (he has been involved with Dream Evil, Nightrage, Mystic Prophecy, and Arch Enemy throughout his career), the demands of joining Ozzy Osbourne's band in 2009 was clearly taking it's toll. While this was a fantastic opportunity for him, and exposed him to a much greater audience, Firewind's activity was hurt in the process. Firewind has always been G.'s 'home', and the main output for his songwriting since 2002, and it was sad to see it put on the back burner. Ironically, a huge Black Sabbath reunion has limited G.'s involvement with Osbourne since 2012, but Firewind was still largely dormant. Some shows were performed in 2013 with Kelly Carpenter (Beyond Twilight; Adagio) taking the vocalist spot, but since then G. decided to focus on a solo career releasing two solo albums with a myriad of guest vocalists and touring under his own name. Both of these albums, while good, took on more of a modern alternative rock sound to the meaty power metal of his best-known band and reception to them was mixed. Fans were clamouring for more Firewind. Things started to look more hopeful in 2015 when Henning Basse (Metalium; Sons of Seasons; MaYaN) was announced as the band's new singer (he had previous played a few shows with Firewind in 2007 filling in Papathanasio), but it would take well over a year for some new Firewind material to surface. A few festival shows were played last year but the band's focus has mostly been recording Immortals, the band's eight studio album. Fans waiting with baited breath can rest east, as Immortals is excellent and exactly the sort of album the band should be making with a powerful frontman like Basse at the helm. It is easily the band's best work since 2008's The Premonition and harks back to the band's earlier, heavier sound with more emphasis on G.'s thrashy riffs and Basse's gritty vocal delivery. This is helped by a massive, guitar-heavy production courtesy of Dennis Ward, who incidentally also co-wrote many of the songs on the album.

Album opener Hands of Time gets the album off to a flying start as Firewind forego the customary dramatic instrumental intro and hit the listener square on with a soaring melodic guitar lead and a barrage of double bass drumming from Jo Nunez. From the outset it is clear that Basse is the right man to front Firewind. His vocals are more reminiscent of former frontman Chitral Somapala's than Papathanasio's, so comparisons to the band's underrated Forged by Fire from 2005 can easily be drawn. The song is your fairly typical power metal anthem, with a soaring chorus and strong melodies, but it really hits the spot in a way that much of Few Against Many failed to do. Unusually it is keyboardist Bob Katsionis that gets the first chance to solo, with a fluid and melodic run of notes that shows he is more than capable of keeping up with G.'s shredding (which soon follows) and that he is the perfect foil for the guitarists skills. We Defy opens with a muscular riff that reeks of G.'s trademark style, and soon turns into a dynamic metal song with a good mix of upbeat fast sections, and heavier slower parts. Basse's vocal howls really jump out of the speakers, but it is on the slower sections that form part of the chorus that he really shines with a menacingly gritty performance that really brings the song to life. A lengthy guitar solo dominates the middle of the song, and shows off G.'s knack for crafting solos that are technically complex but still packed full of melody. Ode to Leonidas, the song chosen to shoot a video for, opens with a dramatic and delightfully cheesy spoken word section performed by Paul Logue (Eden's Curse), where he seems to be trying to do an impression of Sir Winston Churchill's famous war speeches, which sets up the epic song that follows perfectly. This is easily my favourite song on the album, and it one of the best songs the band have written in quite a while. It contains everything that makes Firewind great: a tough guitar riff, a commanding vocal performance, and everything is all tied together with Katsionis' keyboard playing that provides a symphonic backing and melodic riffs throughout. It also helps that the chorus is the real winner, with some strong gang vocal sections which are guaranteed to go down well live, and soaring melodies that show Basse can belt out melodic tune as well as he can do grit and power. Despite the heroic keyboard intro, Back on the Throne sees Firewind channelling classic Megadeth with an overall thrashy feel and a riff that sounds like something Dave Mustaine would have come up with in the late 1980s. It works well for the band however, with bassist Petros Christo particularly standing out with a bulky and driving bassline that propels the song along nicely. Without a real chorus, the song really whizzes by as riff after riff drives the song with furious urgency. The highlight is the guitar solo, which is actually initially at a slower pace than the rest of the song but it gradually speeds up to a shredded climax. Live and Die by the Sword opens with a delicate acoustic guitar melody, and the song gradually builds up around it with some excellent vocals from Basse that range from gentle to soaring power as the song really hits the stride with a fist-pumping rhythm and a strong mid-paced groove. Elsewhere, an uplifting chorus proves to be a fun one with plenty of big vocal harmonies in true power metal tradition.

As Wars of Ages is one of only two songs on the album co-written by Katsionis, it is unsurprising that his keyboards are more prominent. The song opens with a keyboard riff, and they remain prominent throughout helping to boost G.'s guitar riffing with strong counter-melodies. The song is less heavy overall too, with more of a strong melodic metal feel, and boasts one of the album's best choruses which is driven by some very fast drumming. The guitar solo is excellent too, with some seriously technical neo-classical runs that even Yngwie Malmsteen might struggle to pull off! Power metal albums always need a ballad, and often they can be throwaway offerings, but Lady of 1000 Sorrows is anything but filler. I would go as far to say that it is my second favourite song on the album, and really brings out another side of Basse's vocals as he adopts more of an 1980s heavy metal singer vibe with hints of David Coverdale's bluesy delivery. The verses are laid back, with chiming clean guitar melodies and a subtle keyboard backing, but the choruses really take off with Basse's harmonised vocals and emotionally-drenched melodies. It is an absolute classic power ballad with a chorus that is sure to get stuck in your head for days and a true class that many power metal bands fail to achieve. In case anyone was wondering if G. had gone soft, fear not as up next is the blistering instrumental title track that showcases all of his riffing and shredding abilities. It is just shy of two minutes long, but it is packed full of as many riffs and moments of draw-dropping shredding as you will find on most average metal albums. Katsionis' ominous keyboards provide the perfect backing to G.'s demonic guitar pyrotechnics, and Nunez' drums provide the perfect driving force with his speed and diversity. This leads almost instantly into Warriors and Saints, which has a fast-paced shredded intro which is not far removed from the themes covered in Immortals. When the vocals kick in however, the song takes on more of a grungy feel with a fuzzy slower riffs and Basse's low vocals. This is similar to the style the band attempted to perfect on Few Against Many and this is a song that would probably sit quite nicely on that album. While that style started to grate after a while, it actually works well when used sparingly as it is on this song. It provides the album with some dynamics and works well in contrast to the razor-sharp production found elsewhere on Immortals. The main album comes to a close with Rise from the Ashes, a mid-paced rocker that clearly has aspirations of the epic. On first listen, this was one of those songs that just went over my head but on repeated listens it has grown on me with the melodies creeping through into my brain. The choruses in particular are very strong, with plenty of stabs of melodic keyboard and Basse's commanding vocals. There is also a great twin-lead guitar riff towards the end which is a real tribute to Iron Maiden! That is not the true end of Immortals however, as the bonus track Vision of Tomorrow feels integral to the album's journey as apposed to a tacked-on weaker effort that many bands offer up as a bonus. This the other song co-written by Katsionis, so his keyboard playing is all over it. This song packs a real punch, and feels like the real conclusion of the album and reaches the heights that Rise from the Ashes probably does not quite reach. Overall, Immortals is a real come-back for Firewind and cements their place as one of power metal's most vital bands. It is great to have them back, and this album is a real statement from a band that had been treading water for a little while.

The album was released on 20th January 2017 via Century Media Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Ode to Leonidas.

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