Benedictum - Seasons of tragedy 4/5
1. Dawn of seasons
2. Shell shock
3. Burn it out
4. Bare bones
5. Within the solace
6. Beast in the field
8. Nobodies victim
9. Balls to the wall
10. Steel rain
11. Seasons of tragedy
Benedictum's debut CD, 'Uncreation', did not sit well with me. Even though this California act were hyped in many quarters as the saviors of U.S. metal, I didn't see it. Too many modern influences, too many boring riffs, too many embarrassing lyrics, an over-the-top vocal performance by a female singer trying too hard to prove her toughness and machismo, and an overabundance of Black Sabbath covers made 'Uncreation' an often-frustrating listen for this reviewer. But the potential was there. Glimmers of hope (most notably on the stellar "Valkyrie rising") prevented me from dismissing Benedictum altogether. So when their follow-up CD, 'Seasons of tragedy', saw the light of day on Locomotive Records earlier this year, and the 'Net buzz lauded it as a vast improvement over its predecessor, I decided to check it out.
For once, the pundits were 100% correct in the sense that 'Seasons of tragedy' marks a bold step forward from 'Uncreation'. Benedictum have obviously learned much from their first CD and have used the intervening 2 years to hone their sound, strengthen their riffing, and inject more melody, texture and contrast into their music, rather than simply trying to bludgeon the listener into submission as 'Uncreation' too often did. The final product compromises not one iota in the heaviness department, but offers much more interesting, nuanced songs that dampen the new-school influences and showcase the old-school traditional metal roots of the band that were suppressed far too much on 'Uncreation'. By my count, there are no fewer than 3 gold-medal tracks on this CD, any one of which in isolation would have justified the price of admission. Following a short intro, opener "Shell shock" delivers a brass-knuckled fist to the jaw, with a pulverizing machine-gun riff, a monstrous bridge, a stout shouted chorus, and smart lyrics that effectively convey the horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder for soldiers returning home from war. "Beast in the field" sports a meaty main riff, an awesome double-bass bridge, a killer vocal from Veronica Freeman, probably the best chorus the band have ever written, and a frenetic speed burst at the end that gives way to a haunting piano line. Last but not least, the closing 11-minute epic "Seasons of tragedy" proves that Benedictum truly excel at this kind of sweeping, grandiose writing (as they did on "Valkyrie rising" from the debut), with this song offering superb melodies, lots of well-crafted twists and turns, and perhaps Freeman's finest lyrics ever chronicling the white owl of winter, the sparrow of spring, and the like (favorite line: "Were it not for this passage through this life I have led with its pain and its sorrow / Then I would not have had this victory"). By the way, it's a very cool and very clever detail that the booklet art features each of the 4 birds from each of the 4 seasons described in the song, interspersed among images of razor-wire fences, suffocating clouds of black smoke, and charred post-apocalyptic ruins. Seasons of tragedy, indeed.
This review would be incomplete without a humble tip of the cap to a couple of individual performances. With respect to guitarist Pete Wells, as a general rule I tend not to go overboard on the guitar hero thing, but Wells is an amazing player who perfectly combines technicality with melody and feeling. So enjoyable is his work that my ears perk up every time a guitar solo appears in a Benedictum song, and I redouble my focus just to make sure I don't miss out on any of Wells' brilliant flourishes. His playing was a real bright spot on 'Uncreation', but Wells has taken it to the next level here. Also deserving of kudos is Freeman's work behind the microphone. As harshly critical as I was of her macho posturing in 'Uncreation', I must admit that Freeman has delivered the goods big-time here, channeling more diversity in her vocal delivery (even singing tenderly on the semi-ballad "Steel rain", and hitting all aspects of her range within the same song on "Within the solace") and not being afraid to show her effeminate side. The result is a remarkably versatile vocal performance that succeeds on all levels, and that elevates Freeman's status to one of the best new singers (male or female) to hit the metal scene in recent years. Another subtle point to highlight is that the band members' thanks lists are an enjoyable from-the-heart read that stands in sharp contrast to the obligatory, bloodless who's-who afterthought that most bands include in their CD booklets. To read these kind, heartfelt words by Benedictum towards the people who have supported them makes it all the easier to root for these guys (and gal), who come across as classy people in addition to talented performers.
All of that said, 'Seasons of tragedy' is not an unblemished triumph. I still think the fruity, spacey keyboards are distracting far more than they are enhancing. The modernish/groove elements overwhelm a few tracks. A few choruses wear out their welcome with their ultra-repetitive, simplistic nature. And the "Balls to the wall" cover, while well executed and especially well sung in true Dirkschneider fashion, comes across as gratuitous and unnecessary given the plethora of bands that have capably covered this song before.
Overall, it's a pleasure to report that Benedictum have made massive strides with 'Seasons of tragedy'. These denizens of San Diego have all the right ingredients to deliver a classic CD someday, and they have come a long way towards realizing that potential here. For fans of well-done U.S. metal with a foot in the modern and the traditional camps, 'Seasons of tragedy' ushers in a season of celebration.
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