Ascension - Far beyond the stars 3.5/5
1. Somewhere back in time
3. Reflected life
6. Orb of the moons
7. The silver tide
8. The time machine
9. Far beyond the stars
10. The avatar (ascension)
It's standard practice for a Scottish fan to have a good moan about how virtually no metal bands ever make it out their local scene around these parts, but it’s an adage that’s starting to become less relevant with the likes of Cerebral Bore, Falloch and just recently Cnoc An Tursa signing up with decent-sized labels. Scottish power metal has almost always been a virtual contradiction in terms though, with Alestorm’s right-place-at-the-right-time success being, for better or worse, the only notable export out there in that department.
The mighty and dear departed Syth were a power metal mainstay in their own, one-off way, but Aberdeen’s Ascension are as near as I can see a first in that they play no-holds-barred European power metal, and have found a natural home on Spiritual Beast for their debut ‘Far beyond the stars’ which seems some newer songs line up alongside some old favourites that have been recorded a few times down the years.
Despite a healthy and evident influence from the old stalwarts in Gamma Ray and Stratovarius (particularly on the often neo-classical lead playing), the first and most obvious comparison would be to Dragonforce. Forming as they did in 2004, just as Dragonforce were about to hit the big time, it’s easy to see how influenced they have been by the London band, but digging a little deeper goes to show they are not an outright clone and much of the similarity lies more in the presentation rather than the actual content.
The production style (a typically astute and notably self-financed Andy LaRocque job) is of the completely in-your-face variety, the vocals massively front and centre and the drums rattling like artillery fire, while for the most part every song blasts away at a searing tempo.
The end product is one that is massively vibrant, though often rather chaotic, and for all the focus on catchiness in the melodies, parts of a few of the songs just don’t stick. When they hit the nail on the head though, Ascension can be unstoppable. The opener, “Somewhere back in time” is stunning, showing off most of the excesses that the rest of the CD will imbue (and even cheekily giving the first of many, many solos over to bassist Nick Blake) in a succinct fashion, with the memorable chorus showing off the best of wailing of vocalist Richard Carnie. Some of the longer songs sometimes threaten to wear out their welcome and don’t knit together properly, but the emotional, uplifting “The time machine” (only losing points for being based on the guff Guy Pearce film version rather than the original story) shows them battering out a 7-minute plus song as if it was nothing at all.
While there are some tasteful keyboard brushes from time to time, the only real moment where they take centre stage is a guest spot from Elias Holmlid on the eye-watering instrumental “Orb of the moons”, and the guitars well and truly rule the roost the rest of the time. Founder Stuart Docherty and Fraser Edwards are a gifted pair who play off each other well, and while they rarely stand out from one another in style, they compliment each other very well indeed, with many of the typically extensive solos wheeling in and out of harmonised sections with gleeful abandon.
To be truthful, there is a bit of overkill in this department, and the endless instrumental sections, while doubtlessly of great technical virtue, do lead to the old “gallop fatigue” problem, and a bit more variety of approach would probably make the CD a little easier to swallow in one sitting. On the other hand, the sole moment where Ascension do slow things down is, predictably, a ballad, and almost as predictably, the weakest song on the CD. The acoustic guitars feel misused and out of place, while Carnie reveals quite a limited normal singing voice when all that belting falsetto is stripped away The drums, and the production style, geared to an all-out audio assault feel over-cooked on this more slender offering, but it is the only out-and-out misfire.
Despite a few moments where it tends to sag under the weight of its own excess, ‘Far beyond the stars’ proves to be a more than satisfactory debut. Speed freaks lamenting Dragonforce’s decision to mix things up a little bit on their newest CD and Cellador’s reluctance to properly reappear will find a welcome tonic, but to balance that out some others may find this overly sugary offering likely to induce brain rot after a few songs.
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