Gates of Slumber (The) - Conqueror 3/5
1. Trapped in the web
3. Ice worm
4. Eyes of the lair
5. Children of Satan
6. To kill and be king
7. The machine
8. Dark valley suite
A significant buzz accompanied the release of The Gates of Slumber's 3rd CD, 'Conqueror', a few months ago. Breathless reviewers deemed it the perfect marriage of true heavy metal and traditional doom metal, sort of the unholy matrimony of Manowar's 'Into glory ride' and vintage Black Sabbath. I had always dismissed this Indianapolis power trio with a wave of the hand as stoner crap, albeit without ever hearing a note. That same close-mindedness having backfired spectacularly in the case of Grand Magus, whose 'Iron will' opus turned out to be one of my favorite CDs of 2008, I decided to give 'Conqueror' a shot on the theory that The Gates of Slumber might be another stoner act that had turned a corner to true metal glory.
The trouble I have with 'Conqueror' is, quite simply, that it maintains one foot squarely in the stoner/doom camp, so firmly that it will likely alienate fans of more traditional/classic/less trippy metal sounds. Sure, I hear molten chunks of early Manowar, Motorhead, Manilla Road, and Cirith Ungol cropping up from time to time in the music, but the predominant influences are unquestionably Saint Vitus, The Obsessed, Pentagram, Cathedral, Revelation, Unorthodox, Witchfinder General and bands of that ilk. Vocally, Karl Simon bears more than a passing resemblance to Wino, with his slightly gritty whiskey-tinged shouts. Production values and arrangements are also from the Vitus/Pentagram school, with fuzzed-out 70s guitars galore, lugubrious somnolent tempos, and interminable jam sections. In some places, most notably the 16-minute "Dark valley suite" and "Eyes of the liar", the music just meanders along with no apparent direction or flow whatsoever. Devotees of the Vitus branch of the metal family tree may be giddy about these musical accoutrements, but I sure wasn't.
So this should be a simple review, then, right? Let's just toss The Gates of Slumber into the "not my thing" dustbin and move on. Not so fast there, sluggo. The comparisons to early Manowar are not totally off base. To the contrary, there are several tracks on 'Conqueror' where The Gates of Slumber go into full-on classic metal mode, with amazing results. To illustrate the point, one need look no further than track 5, "Children of Satan", a mighty metal hammer boasting faster tempos, crushing riffage and a brilliant chorus that will possess your soul as Simon decries the neglected atrocities of Darfur. Or check out opener "Trapped in the web", in which the band rocks out in a zippy metal style that strikes close to my heart. Other highlights are "Ice worm" and "The machine", so that's 4 of the 8 songs that feature a sufficiently traditional metal orientation to appeal to the studs'n'leather metalheads, rather than simply the bong'n'psychedelia stoners. And these 4 are all quite excellent songs. Another positive is the outstanding, thought-provoking lyrical content, which is heavily steeped in the legendary fantasy writings of Robert E. Howard, who brought the world Kull the Conqueror, Conan the Barbarian, and others. Furthermore, the fascinating liner notes offer insights into the creative process from the eyes of the creators, telling the story behind each song.
At the end of the day, then, 'Conqueror' is a CD that I can neither laud as masterpiece nor decry as catastrophe. It has a number of elements that I really like, and a number of others that just don't click for me because they're outside my musical tastes. Let me put it this way: If the idea of a souped-up, testosterone-injected version of Saint Vitus's 'Children of doom' with Wino-esque vocals sounds to you like a good time, then 'Conqueror' may just be your new best friend. But if the Vitus/Pentagram/Obsessed variant of the heavy metal art form isn't really your bag, then don't expect a smooth ride on 'Conqueror', no matter what you may have read or heard elsewhere. Grand Magus they're not, but The Gates of Slumber are onto something, even if that something isn't for everyone.
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