Alestorm - Black sails at midnight 4/5
1. The quest
3. That famous ol' spiced
5. To the end of our days
6. Black sails at midnight
7. No quarter
8. Pirate song
9. Chronicles of vengenance
10. Wolves of the sea
I seem to remember saying at the end of my review for Alestorm’s debut ‘Captain Morgan’s revenge’ that the best thing for them would be if Napalm Records resisted the urge to rush out a 2nd CD and gave them the time necessary to hone their craft. Obviously my review didn’t travel quite as far as Austria because ‘Black sails at midnight’ is upon us already, not even 18 months on from the first CD.
But nevertheless, they are indeed back with a CD that is at the same time more of the same, slightly more mature and altogether very satisfying. Opener “The quest” is a bit of a statement of intent, with ‘we are back’ lyrics in the same mould as Manowar’s “Return of the warlord”, and a hint at the slightly more developed nature of some of the songs to come. Christopher Bowes vocals are still quite limited, but the heroic chorus melody is a bit more adventurous than much of the work on the debut CD, while the guitar playing (never really quite as underdeveloped as it had often been accused of) is a little more exploratory and feels less tacked on under the keyboard segments which are still the main focus for much of the CD.
There are indeed songs where Bowes keyboard playing is very much reigned in, allowing the guitars (mostly played by producer Lasse Lammert following the eventual departure of founder Gavin Harper) a lot more room to express themselves. The aggressive title track features only sparse symphonic blasts, and is very much a power metal song with none of the expected folk extravagances, and while we’re still not talking Dark Angel here it’s nice to hear some actual riffing going on.
The bleak, sombre ballad “To the end of our days” is another unexpectedly stripped-down affair with virtually no keyboards at all until the scattered solo, and only power chords to keep Bowes company as he offers a performance of unforeseen despairing tenderness. Although still nowhere near the finished article as a singer, Bowes has improved his technique since the debut and offers a little more variety on this CD, and at the same time has toned down the ‘yahar!’ aspect of his performance slightly which allows his Scottish accent to shine through a little more clearly.
Those more inclined towards the bouncy folk metal side of Alestorm need not lose heart though, for there are several ridiculously upbeat songs no doubt guaranteed to have crowds pogoing up and down the land. The traditional aspect of the sound has also been authenticated a little, with more actual instruments used in place of keyboards from time to time. “Keelhauled”, probably the jolliest song you’ll ever hear about death by torture, sees a violin and accordion jigging across an animated Korpiklaani bass line and adds a little bit of realism that is sometimes found wanting in the more common synth tones.
This is proven not to be a guarantee of success though, since despite a romping chorus and a nifty bit of tin whistle assistance, “That famous ol’ spiced” is actually one of the CD’s weaker moments, mainly because the verses sound almost exactly like those on “Over the seas” from the debut.
The instrumental “No quarter” is actually the last remaining demo song (intros and covers aside) from the Battleheart days to be properly recorded, and its surprising exclusion from the ‘Captain Morgan’s revenge’ sessions has thankfully been remedied here. Not the most complex and enduring of tunes, but hardly throwaway either as it features some excellent soloing and harmonizing from the guitar and keyboards.
Napalm of course screwed the pooch a little with the ‘Leviathan’ EP late last year, as the 2 new songs featured there are both here as well and, a few tweaks to the mix aside, are completely identical. That 2 of the 10 songs on the CD have already been in the fans’ consciousness for a few months now devalues the overall product a little, and on the face of it, it looks like a bit of irresponsible cash-grabbing from what is usually a very trustworthy label. Regardless, “Leviathan” itself is a fine example of the increasingly bold Alestorm style, an epic symphonic power metal song with some out of character semi-harsh vocals in the pre-chorus and a strong focus on the sweeping orchestral arrangements that characterise many of Bowes’ later compositions.
“Wolves of the sea”, on the other hand, manages to fully exemplify the wacky sound the band are (in)famous for despite being a cover song. Originally by a Latvian pop project, it was used as the country’s Eurovision entry a few years ago and is an appropriately mental bit of Europop from the world’s best lack of talent contest. Proof, as if it was ever needed, that a sound melody can make a good song out of nearly anything, it transfers perfectly to Alestorm’s style (not that it’s a bad thing, but pop music and power metal drift a lot close together than a lot of people probably care to realise) and the joyous choir vocals and cheesy keyboard solo make for a brilliant closing track – certainly a damn sight better than their “De-flower of Scotland” butchery that closed out ‘Captain Morgan’s revenge’. The only complaint I could raise is that the original mix of the song flowed better, and the more prominent keyboard line in the chorus of this version only serves to clutter things up.
It is a slightly different beast to its predecessor, but ‘Black sails at midnight’ is more or less as good, just for different reasons. Some of the manic immature charm is gone, but the slightly grander and more guitar-centric approach suggests Alestorm will be able to outlive their status as a novelty band if they continue a gradual progression along this path. A must-buy for fans of the debut, and perhaps worthy of a 2nd chance for those that were left cold by the band the first time around.
Now read the review again and see which word I didn’t use even once.
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