Benedictum - Uncreation 2.5/5
5. Ashes to ashes
7. Heaven and hell
9. Two steps to the sun
10. Valkyrie rising
11. The mob rules
This is a tough one. Hailing from San Diego, California, Locomotive recording artists Benedictum have made quite a splash in the international metal community with their debut CD, 'Uncreation'. Journalists have spared no superlative in heaping accolade after accolade upon this release, hailing Benedictum as the vanguard of a new U.S. metal elite. And the normally staid and conservative European metal scene has embraced the band, as evidenced by Benedictum's receipt of a coveted slot at Italy's Gods of Metal festival next month to be followed by a partial European tour. Moreover, Benedictum seem to be hotly tipped in biz circles as well, judging by the involvement of no fewer than 3 metal luminaries (Jeff Pilson of Dokken/Dio/others, Jimmy Bain of Rainbow/Dio, and Craig Goldy of Dio) in the creative process. Although Bain and Goldy's roles were confined to one-song guest slots, Pilson was heavily immersed in this project. The ex-Dokken 4-stringer is not actually a member of Benedictum, but he might as well be, as he is credited for producing, engineering, mixing, providing composition and arrangement assistance, singing background vocals, and playing almost all bass tracks and even a few keyboards on this CD.
Going into this listening experience, I was expecting a classic traditional metal CD a la 'Last in line' or 'Holy diver' with an updated, punchy sound. Why? Hmmm, let's see: there are three Dio alums performing on the CD, the band cover not one but 2 Dio-era Sabbath classics ("Heaven and hell" and "The mob rules"), and vocalist Veronica Freeman has been likened to Ronnie James Dio in nearly all the press I've seen about Benedictum. Within the first 2 minutes of opener "Uncreation", those preconceived notions came crashing down with a dull thud. Let me be very clear: this CD sounds nothing like any Dio recording, except maybe the oft-maligned 'Angry machines'. The band specializes in chunky, unmelodic staccato modernish riffs, with a brutal, pervasive bottom end a la Fight or Pantera, even. The only places where a classic metal influence shines through are in the often fluid, catchy leads and a few choruses, plus of course the 2 Sabbath covers. Otherwise, this pretty much modern, tough-guy metal with buckets of attitude for the new millennium, but little for a grizzled traditional metal devotee. To be honest, the musical direction most reminded me of the last few Chastain CDs, you know, the ones with Kate French on vocals, or even the post-reunion Warrior output (in the riffing department, especially). For me, that's not a good thing.
For those who are looking to find fault, there's a lot of ammunition here. The riffs are of the boring, stiff, heavy-for-the-sake-of-being-heavy variety. The material, with the exception of the 2 covers and the sparkling 8-minute masterpiece "Valkyrie rising", tends to run together. Freeman, who has been praised as "the new first lady of heavy metal" in various publications, has a good, powerful voice, but is too caught up in macho posturing (not far removed from the aforementioned Kate French, actually) trying to prove how metal she is, even as the CD packaging offers no fewer than 4 gratuitous images of her cleavage. And her lyrics sometimes flame out in spectacularly embarrassing fashion ("I'm your backstreet filthy whore" she croons in one song, and she invites detractors to suck an anatomical appendage that I'm reasonably certain she lacks in another song). The spacey, Ayreon-type keyboards are hideously out of place in the few spots where they bubble to prominence in the mix. And I understand the value of paying respect to one's influences, but do we really need 2 covers of oft-mined, well-known Sabbath tunes on one CD?
These criticisms notwithstanding, there are a number of redeeming qualities in Benedictum's debut CD that elevate it above 'Angry machines', Chastain's 'Sick society', or Warrior's 'Wars of gods and men'. As mentioned, the leadwork of Pete Wells is excellent, tasteful and melodic. And the CD improves considerably as it wears on, with 5 of the last 6 tracks (including the 2 covers) being winners. I give Benedictum loads of credit for taking an overdone track like "Heaven and hell" (surely among the most-covered 80s metal songs of all time) and not only doing it justice, but making it their own with a superb version that honors the original while adding the band's own special twist. I've always been partial to Division's lightspeed take on that song on the 'Ascension to eternity' CD, but Benedictum's is easily one of the finest renditions of "Heaven and hell" ever. Finally, of the original tracks, the mystical "Wicca", the King Diamond-ish galloping "Two steps to the sun", and especially the fantastic epic "Valkyrie rising" caught my ear and were very enjoyable. Had the band found their way clear to inject the kinds of dynamics and melodies displayed on "Valkyrie rising" into the first half of the CD, my assessment would have turned out far differently. The song is so good that it adds at least a half point to my review all by itself.
Obviously, my mixed comments are out of step with the vast majority of opinions circulating around the Internet. Given the effusive praise 'Uncreation' has received elsewhere, and the fact that there are some superb moments here, I implore you not simply to dismiss it out of hand. I recognize that I may be off base with this review; however, I have to call 'em like I see 'em, even (and perhaps especially) when that means going against the grain.
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