Axehammer - Windrider 4/5

Reviewed: 12-2-05


1. Stand up and fight
2. Stand and deliver
3. Destiny of light
4. Rise up
5. Back for vengeance
6. The power
7. Shadowlands
8. Dancing with demons
9. Sacred waters
10. Windrider

Veteran metalheads look back with fondness on the 80s as the glory days, the time when the music we love was forged in the fires of Hades, tempered with the pounding hammer of Thor, and slaked with the blood of the unbelievers. With the worldwide commercial resurgence of true heavy metal in recent years, a number of long-defunct acts, both celebrated and obscure, have strapped on the studded wristbands and Flying Vs anew seeking one more shot at glory. More often than not, these reunions disappoint, offering up nothing more than a hollow facsimile of days long past. Every so often, however, a reunion strikes gold. For me, Exodus hit a homerun last year, and the new CDs from the resurgent Candlemass and Judas Priest will undoubtedly be ensconced in my Top 20 list for 2005 when the dust has settled. The name Axehammer can now be added prominently to that elite list of worthwhile reformations.

"Who?" you ask? Axehammer were a cult traditional metal band from Los Angeles in the mid-80s that were blessed with amazing songs, superlative vocals and a heavy European influence. They recorded a classic 5-song EP that unfortunately got lost in the shuffle of record label idiocy, shifting musical trends, and changing band member priorities, never to see the light of day. Fortunately, Sentinel Steel Records unearthed this buried treasure in 1998 and issued it under the 'Lord of the realm' banner, complete with bonus tracks, rare photos, and liner notes. Songs like "Princess" and "Lord of the realm" left a searing impression on my metal mind, and left me yearning for more Axehammer. Amazingly, 2005 brings a newly recorded full-length CD entitled 'Windrider' from the band, whose ranks now include 3/4 of the classic line-up, augmented by new bassist, Colin Sauers. This was no half-hearted effort either, as the legendary Bill Metoyer presided over the recordings, Horacio Colmenares of New Eden/Steel Prophet fame had a hand at the pre-production stage, and Denis Gulbey oversaw the entire project with his usual exacting standards and steadfast refusal to settle for mediocrity.

The results are astounding. From a songwriting perspective, with one or 2 exceptions these songs pick up right where the 1987 recordings left off, featuring fist-pumping straightahead 80s-style metal anthems aplenty. Jerry Watt's infectious riffing grabs you by the throat and does not let go for 45 minutes. The rhythm section is more than competent, with special props going to drummer Joe Aghassi for his tasty fills and rock-solid backbeat. But the unquestioned star is vocalist Bill Ramp. That he is not recognized as a vocal superhero is nothing short of a travesty. Ramp's strength lies in his chameleonic versatility, as he can lay on the grit and thunder when a song calls for it, sing with a clear high pitch a bit like Rob Rock, and then settle into a smoother mid-range that is at times reminiscent of Blitzkrieg's Brian Ross (e.g., "Destiny of light", "Dancing with demons"). Not only that, but Ramp's perfect pitch and control allow the band to pen clever, imaginative vocal melodies and hooks that often track Watt's guitar trills. (My only regret is that he didn't include any of the metal yodeling that propelled "Lord of the realm" to truly elite status.) The result is a feast for 80s metal devotees, a banquet rendered all the more delectable by Axehammer's ability to change speeds seamlessly, varying tempos and moods to avert the samey-ness that plagued Icarus Witch's otherwise quite respectable full-length debut. Of course, I tend to favor speedy tunes like the carpe diem "Stand up and fight" (with its chorus admonishing us, "Don't wait 'til you get too old") and the ode to the band's mascot "Rise up" (with its spoken word intro that hearkens back to "Lord of the realm" and "Axehammer" from the old days), but there's no weak link here except for the ever-so-slightly dull "Sacred waters", a generally unsuccessful experiment at a moody, 5.5-minute plodding piece. And stunning closer "Windrider" is perhaps the finest song on display, dishing up some killer guitar work and a devastating chorus.

Having said all that, what's not to like here? If you're looking for epic, symphonic European power metal, just move right along. This is an honest, old-school, anthemic traditional metal CD that generally has little in common with the Stratovariuses and Rhapsodies of the world. Nonetheless, there are fragments of power metal influences that crop up here and there that might turn away a few particularly zealous members of the truer-than-troo crowd. Also, the song structures are simple verse-chorus type arrangements that generally hover in the 3-4 minute range. While that suits me just fine, the refined metal ear of 2005 may find the material a bit too unchallenging in this age of 74-minute concept albums covering 300 years of ancient history with a 40-piece orchestra in tow. Finally, although I understand the band's affinity for its metal giant mascot depicted on the front cover, I wish they'd foregone the cartoonish imagery in favor of one of the Hildebrandt or Ken Kelly paintings that have often graced Sentinel Steel releases.

My final verdict is that 'Windrider' will not unseat the likes of Savage Circus, Overlorde, Hibria and Gamma Ray from my best of 2005 list, but I cannot think of a finer traditional 80s metal CD released this year. This Axehammer CD oozes class and quality, and will be a staple in my player for months to come. Long live the Metal Giant!




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