Firewind - Allegiance 3/5
3. Falling to pieces
4. Ready to strike
5. Breaking the silence
7. Till the end of time
9. Before the storm
10. The essence
11. Where do we go from here?
The latest rotation of the Firewind line-up saw the addition of veteran drummer Mark Cross and vocalist Apollo Papathasiano. Apparently with Gus G. now treating Firewind as his sole priority and with the recruitment of all-Greek (or Greek-based) line-up, this will be the end of Firewind's semi-project status and the beginning of their movement forward as a solid unit. Unfortunately, I'm here to report that the first step into the new era is a minor stumble.
I try not to be the sort of music listener that refuses to accept changes to a band's line-up (Firewind have gone through a lot of changes usually out of their control or down to lack of foresight), but after previously having 2 top-class vocalists in the raspy bellower Stephen Fredrick and the Tony Martin-like Chity Somapala, I'm afraid that the newcomer Apollo is sometimes found wanting. He has a likeable and versatile voice, but has a recurring tendency to fall back into a soft, high wail that becomes a niggling annoyance, and unfortunately is not a match for either one of his predecessors, particularly in the aggressions takes.
But what presents a more serious problem than a few instances of a vocalist misfiring is that this is the first Firewind CD to feature some sub-par songs. Even more worryingly for the first-time listener, 2 of the weakest spots on the CD come in the opening 3 songs. The title track opens proceedings at midtempo and despite initially having the hallmarks of a typically excellent Firewind song, falls down when it reaches its uninspired chorus. This is also the first instance of Apollo's 'annoying' voice. Clearly they are reaching for anthemic standards with this song, but with such a weak centrepiece to the song the CD opens with a definite damp squib.
The lead single, "Falling to pieces", sitting at 3rd place on the CD is also a rather underwhelming effort. After an interesting, broken guitar intro with a rich keyboard layer joining in, we are left with a fairly tame and boring track that once again loses points for an annoying pre-chorus. Things only really get going when the 4th track, "Ready to strike" kicks in – the CD finally reaches top speed, and the song is a breathtaking metal anthem in the style of the 80s glory days, with an excellent solo section following on from an unexpected but very welcome melodic piano break.
For the most part, though, 'Allegiance' is more of what Firewind do best – traditional full-throttle metal based on a succession of heavy riffs with blazing solos at every opportunity. There are, however, a few variations to the formula – possibly the biggest being that keyboard maestro Bob Katsionis has been let off the leash after being kept somewhat in the background on his debut with the band, 'Forged by fire'. It may seem a worrying premise for fans of such a riff-based band, but the keys definitely do not get in the way - usually they are hiding just behind the guitars and occasionally taking the lead, and Bob's shredding solos add another new dimension to the music.
There are a few breaks in Firewind tradition on 'Allegiance' – the most notable being that Gus G. is not responsible for the writing of every song. Apollo, Mark and Bob are all credited with music writing on a song each, with results varying in both sound and quality. Bob's effort, "Till the end of time" is easily the best of the 3, a ripping speedy power metal track - probably the most overtly power metal piece on the CD. The lead part that drives the song along is wonderful, and quite reminiscent of Bob's solo career. The track is a genuine highlight on 'Allegiance' and ought to make the listener glad that Gus has decided to relinquish total creative control this time around.
The other 2 tracks written by other band members don't scale the same heights – in "Dreamchaser", Mark has written a very solid traditional metal song with a sing-a-long chorus that shows up his influences in anthemic 80s metal. An enjoyable effort, but slightly too generic to be counted among the top songs on the CD. "Where do we go from here?", written almost entirely by Apollo, is the final track on the CD and another of its weak points. It also sounds like something out of the 80s, but more of a melodic rock song than heavy metal. I can see the band's logic in closing the CD with a reflective song, but compared to the ballads that have rounded off their last 2 efforts, it feels like proceedings are closed with a bit of a whimper instead of an emotional outpouring.
The only true ballad on the CD is not found where you would perhaps expect it – with guest female vocals by pop singer Tara on "Breaking the silence", one could perhaps expect a slushy love song, but instead you get one of the best tracks on the whole CD. It is an urgent-sounding effort based around a duet with some thought actually put into it – after sharing the verses, the chorus features an excellent back-and-forth between Apollo and Tara instead of the 2 simply singing the same lines at the same time. The song benefits immensely from this and 'Allegiance' as a whole is given a lift at the crucial midpoint.
Back to that ballad, the following track and true midpoint of the CD, "Deliverance" is an introspective, semi-acoustic song that actually suits Apollo's softer vocals a lot better than the other points where it is used across the piece. More typical chunky riffs in the verses augment the song by contrasting to the soft vocals and acoustics on the bridge and chorus – nothing groundbreaking, of course, but very enjoyable nonetheless.
'Allegiance' is definitely a CD containing a lot more good than bad, and despite the weak points that puncture it at crucial moments (like a weak opener and closer, sandwiching the rest of the music), there really isn't too much to complain about. 5 of the 11 songs recorded here truly are absolutely excellent and can hold their own against virtually anything else under the Firewind name, and 3 of the remaining 6 sit comfortably between 'good' and 'very good'.
The thing that leaves me feeling disappointed every time the CD finishes playing is its frustrating inconsistency, something Firewind have never been guilty of in the past. In the end what we have is a good album by a great band – and that's not really enough, is it? With any luck this CD will be something of a blip as the new version of Firewind finds its way in the world. Hopefully by their next release they will be back firing on all cylinders.
MORE REVIEWS... FULL REVIEWS
MORE REVIEWS BY CREAG... CREAG