Holy Dragons - Black moon rising 4/5

Reviewed: 11-3-06


1. Black moon rising
2. Freedom
3. Tengri
4. Bullet and bayonet steel
5. Forbidden horizon
6. Morok
7. Master of the world
8. Dynamite
9. Black moon daughter
10. Sons of Judas
11. Mirror of fate

Kazakhstan's finest metal export, Holy Dragons, delivered one of my favorite CDs of 2005 with their speed/power masterpiece, 'Wolves of Odin'. Not content to bask in their triumph, the hardworking trio have leapt right back into the fray with what I believe to be their 8th CD, 'Black moon rising'. For those unfamiliar with the band, Holy Dragons have developed a reputation in underground metal circles as being the Russian-language Blind Guardian. And the Blind Guardian period that Holy Dragons channels is not the overblown 'Night at the opera' era, but is instead the thrashy melodic speed of 'Battalions of fear' and 'Follow the blind'. Every Holy Dragons CD that I've heard (which includes the last 5) has been of high quality, with the trajectory of songwriting, musicianship, professionalism, and production moving steadily, relentlessly upwards with the passage of time.

'Black moon rising' showcases all of the trademarks of the band: the blazing speed, the high energy, the twists and turns, the instantly hummable melodies courtesy of guitarists Jurgen Thunderson and Chris Caine, the occasional folky bit, and the rough but tuneful vocals of Holger Komaroff. In contrast to 'Wolves of Odin', however, the songwriting leans heavily to the epic, with 4 tracks clocking in at more than 7 minutes and 6 tunes weighing in at a hefty 6+ minutes, but the material never seems bloated or unfocused. When Holy Dragons bust loose with their classic melodic teutonic speed metal, the results are guaranteed to bring a smile to the lips of even the most cynical, battle-hardened metal vet. Tracks like "Freedom", "Dynamite" and especially the awesome "Bullet and Bayonet Steel" are textbook examples of state-of-the-art speed metal, with dizzying tempos, killer melodies and rafts of enthusiasm. "Bullet and Bayonet Steel" is an absolute smasher that could almost pass for early Not Fragile, Stormwarrior or Running Wild at their warp-speed best (think "Adrian S.O.S.").

That said, 'Black moon rising' shows the Dragons taking more chances and stepping out of the shadows of their Blind Guardian clone tag. Sure, there are moments that call to mind Hansi's Merry Bards, but they are few and far between, which is a substantial change for this band. Even more striking is the diversity of the material. Opener "Black moon rising" threw me for a loop right away with its technical, slightly dissonant pedal-to-the-metal thrash riffing that sounded more like Annihilator or even Coroner than what we're accustomed to hearing from Holy Dragons. "Tengri" uses what sounds like a jew's harp in the chorus. "Forbidden horizon" is Maiden-styled guitar melodies through and through, played over the top of an otherwise spartan arrangement with a simple Mick Brown-type drumbeat. More generally, this CD sees Holy Dragons experimenting with different tempos, and relying on speed to a lesser extent than before. Several cuts are much more in the vein of midtempo traditional metal anthems than the speed/power/thrash adrenaline workouts that typify their previous output. All of the material is strong, well written and catchy, so despite my chronic and incurable predilection for speed at all costs, I honestly do not mind the relatively slower tempos. In fact, I applaud Holy Dragons for refining and tinkering with their sound and style, all without sacrificing the traits that made them great. And the production, while still not immaculate, is a marked improvement over 'Wolves of Odin''s crummy tin-can guitar tone and overbearing bass barrage.

If Holy Dragons sang in English, secured a Harris Johns production job, and got some push from Century Media or Nuclear Blast, they could easily be a sensation in the metal world. As it stands, they are almost certain to continue flying below the radar screen, relegated to relative obscurity. Nonetheless, if you've ever had an interest in hearing some Russian-language metal and if you have $7.88 to your name (what a bargain!), you owe it to yourself to check out Holy Dragons. Although I'd rank it a smidge below the devastating all-out speed orgy of 'Wolves of Odin', 'Black moon rising' would make an excellent starting point in that investigation, as Holy Dragons are unquestionably firing on all cylinders and are at the top of their game now. All hail Kazakhstani metal!




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