Alestorm - Back through time 3/5
1. Back through time
3. The sunk’n Norwegian
4. Midget saw
5. Buckfast powersmash
6. Scraping the barrel
10. Barrett’s privateers
11. Death throes of the terrorsquid
It would be so easy to simply dismiss this CD by saying that the joke has finally worn out. The problem there is – and maybe I’m in the minority here – I’ve never seen Alestorm as a joke band. Funny? Of course. Stupid? Well yeah, give yourself a gold star for observation there, Columbo. But beneath the hokey “arrr, matey” vocals of Christopher Bowes and his often silly lyrical high jinks, the music taken on its own terms has always remained sturdy and true (if admittedly rather lightweight) power/folk metal.
However what is undeniable is that they seem to have written themselves into a corner here, and signs of fatigue are definitely beginning to show on a 3rd CD that starts and ends in storming fashion, but creaks and groans unbearably in patches in between. The problem must stem from the fact Bowes and the varied associates that have co-written with him over the years find themselves in bit of a catch-22 situation – they have their own corner of the market nailed down, but in securing it have found themselves with little room to manoeuvre in a creative sense. Any attempts to write outside the Alestorm box would no doubt be met with both the scattering of the more casual fans they have built up with their amusing antics and the ire of a label that clearly spotted a winning gimmick when they signed them up back in 2007.
Regardless, the opening clutch of songs shows the band in high spirits and even gives the illusion there may be more than a couple of perfunctory surprises in store. The opening title track, after an unexpected bit of blastbeating under the keyboard noodling, transforms into a power metal barnstormer, with Bowes stretching his limited voice to surprisingly good effect on the thundering pre-chorus and chorus, which take great delight in poking fun at their more viking-minded compatriots on the folk metal map.
“Shipwrecked” also offers a nice surprise with the thrashy opening riff which recurs as a gang vocal-punctuated bridge – it’s very obviously Children of Bodom-influenced, but it makes for a nice change of pace here. “The sunk’n Norwegian” is a bit more familiar, the lyrics essentially a more upbeat rewrite of fan favourite “Nancy the tavern wench”, but it remains a crisp and lively outing nonetheless.
It’s after this wining combo that things turn a little sour though, as while Bowes’ keyboard work remains generally fresh and sprightly, the same old riffs and chords becoming glaringly apparent underneath it all on songs like “Midget saw” and the completed insipid “Swashbuckled”. As some of these titles reveal, their restlessness is turning into outright piss-taking on occasion, which is fine by me – it’s just a shame the results couldn’t have been more refreshing, especially on “Buckfast powersmash” which promises a lot to a west of Scotland boy like me but delivers little more than an annoying novelty tune.
A summing up of the creative dearth and the songwriting dilemma Alestorm have snookered themselves with comes on “Scraping the barrel”, the customary ballad track right in the middle of the CD. While the 2nd verse is a defiant “FOAD” to their critics, there’s no doubt the rest of the song carries a certain air of self-loathing to it, and unsurprisingly it is one of the more emotive and captivating efforts on ‘Back through time’.
For all the doom-mongering though, just as the CD seems to be petering out it, Alestorm manage to pull it together with a pair of nice surprises at the end. A metal version of Stan Rogers’ much-beloved a cappella sea shanty “Barrett’s privateers” is a tricky thing to pull off, and while the gleaming, heavily stacked modern production robs the song of much of its raw emotion they still manage to do justice to a classic in their own silly, divisive way. Tyr’s Heri Joensen pops up unexpectedly to offer a nifty guitar solo, but I can’t help but think they have missed a trick by not handing vocal duties over to him as well, his sonorous tones a more obvious fit for the song than Bowes’s scowl.
Regardless, the band don’t disgrace themselves here, a trend they manage to continue with the one truly daring song on the CD, the closing “Death throes of the terrorsquid” (oh unroll your eyes, please). At nearly 8 minutes long it is their lengthiest outing to date and contains more twists and turns than they have managed in all but a few of their songs so far combined. The shifts between heroic power metal galloping and the darker, doomier verses don’t mesh quite as well as they could and the song isn’t quite the success it might have been but there is still a lot to enjoy – not least a screeching guest vocal performance from Ken Sorceron – and it goes to show that when Bowes puts his mind to it there is more to his game than mindless repetition of stagnating ideas.
‘Back through time’, for the moderate success it does enjoy, remains easily the weakest Alestorm CD to date, and doesn’t exactly bode well for their continued presence as a recording entity. Unless Bowes and co manage to somehow reinvigorate their creative mojo, then only branching out in new directions is going to save them from becoming the one-note joke their snipers have always accused them being. There is evidence here that they might be capable of pulling it off – but whether they have the chops, motivation or even the backing of their label to pull it off remains to be seen.
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