Conquest of Steel - Storm sword: Rise of the dread queen 3/5
1. The final battle (intro)
2. Conquest through fire and steel
3. The prophecy
4. Scourge of the land
5. A people betrayed
6. Unholy union
7. The hangman's smile
8. Spirit of war
9. Jocasta rising
10. Even the gods may be overthrown
11. Raise your fists
12. Lament of the steel
13. An empress is born
14. The prophecy reprise
Conquest of Steel have lived the decade since they formed as an 80s metal band that suddenly found themselves catapulted forward in time, so I suppose it’s only right that with their 3rd CD it’s time for Ideas Above Their Station to be explored. Venom with ‘At war with Satan’, Diamond Head with ‘Canterbury’, the tradition was often for better or worse that the 3rd effort was when a band would try and prove they could provide something grander than the raw charms of their breakthrough material and go on to become something more.
Conquest have so far been the most meat-and-potatoes of bands, their simplistic dirty riffing and too-true-to-be-true lyrics not exactly conducive to an epic concept piece, but that is exactly what they have attempted here with ‘Storm sword: Rise of the dread queen’.
Fantasy stories in heavy metal are a dime a dozen of course, so it’s a bit of a relief that Conquest of Steel have, instead of trying to re-write ‘The Lord of the Rings’, have penned a tale more in line with the works of David Gemmell. With no magic kingdoms or singing dragons in sight, the gritty story tells the tale of the rise of a Genghis Khan-like ruler, who is hailed a hero after uniting scattered tribes into a nation, only to eventually be overthrown by his own daughter after falling into corruption and paranoid tyranny.
But despite the quite compelling and well handled storyline, and some effective acoustic intros bridging the gaps between songs, ‘Storm sword’ ultimately succumbs to the most obvious pitfall to plague conceptual works – the music becomes a slave to the lyrics, and after a storming start the CD mostly grinds on in continuous midtempo style, with only a few more flourishes surfacing from a greater number of songs that lack any notable riffs or identities of their own.
It seems that at least some of the lyrics came first on this CD and, well written as they are (even if they can’t make up their minds whether the story is set in a kingdom or an empire), the music should always be the top priority, and it is fairly obvious which songs had the music written to back up an already in place lyrical framework.
In some way the CD still actually works quite well, but those who cannot submerge themselves in the concept will in all likelihood find it an often drab and listless affair. The lack of big riffs and guitar solos in particular is pretty hard to fathom for a self-styled true metal band, especially when the few that do appear are expertly handled and inject some life into proceedings.
At the same time, many of the songs that actually do possess stronger moments just feel too short and underdeveloped. “Jocasta rising”, despite a couple of flat vocal moments, captures some inspired melodies and builds well until it suddenly stops at the 2-1/2 minute mark. Of the 13 full songs, no less than 4 are less than 3 minutes long with another just scraping past that mark, and these shorter songs have an embryonic feel about them, as though with a bit more work they could have become something greater.
Only a couple of songs near the start manage the combination of being fully-formed and completely inspired; the proper opener, “Through fire and steel” is built on near-constant driving lead guitar and features an inspiring chorus that makes the most of Dan Durrant’s voice. Still quite a limited vocalist, he pulls a bit of a surprise on the following song, “The prophecy”. Singing from the point of view of the king and a seer prophesising his ill fate, Durrant switches between 2 distinct voices and displays some unexpected dynamics.
He is found wanting on a few occasions throughout the CD, mostly on the faster parts, but shines on the slow-burning “Unholy union”, where he duets with a recurring female guest vocalist who also suffers quite mixed fortunes. Also sounding the part on this slower song, when she is asked to join in on the galloping “Lament of the steel” her voice sounds squeaky and out of place, and during the chorus she and Durrant just get in each other’s way, with both their vocal lines more or less rendered inaudible.
On the whole I may be underselling the CD a little as I do find it quite enjoyable, but as a concept enthusiast, keeping track of the story across the piece probably makes up for the fact that many of the songs don’t stand up particularly well on their own. Listeners who take no notice of the lyrics or don’t buy into the whole concept deal are likely to be less impressed.
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