Phoenix Reign - Destination unknown 4/5
1. Gates of bosphorus
3. Masquerade angel
5. Another night alone
6. Open your eyes
7. Run now
8. Wherever you are
9. Destination unknown
10. Moving on
11. Constantinople 1453 (On the eve of the fall)
One of the most exciting sub-genres in the metal realm for me of late has been the epic traditional metal sound with powerful female vocals, sort of combining prime Iron Maiden, classic Leather Leone-era Chastain, and Warlock/Doro/Backslash. New York's Twilight Odyssey are at the head of the pack, but bands like Ignitor, Crystal Tears and Crystal Viper are nipping at their heels, with even Russian neophytes Volnaya Staya making a play to get in on the action. When you add in the heavy-duty U.S. female fronted acts like Benedictum and Vainglory, the female traditional/true metal scene is burgeoning. Phoenix Reign are the latest new band in this general style to come across my desk, via their independently released CD, 'Destination unknown'.
For an independent effort, this 'Destination unknown' simply oozes quality. The excellent cover art - depicting Constantinos Paleologos at the battlements at dawn on May 29, 1453 - is striking and well rendered, and serves as the perfect wrapper for the music within. Production-wise, Phoenix Reign and producer Themi Kyriazis have done a fantastic and utterly professional job, with a sound that is punchy, balanced and clear, belying the likely low recording budget. Musically, Phoenix Reign's sound centers around the compelling twin-guitar histrionics of Billy Chrissochos and Kostas Psarros, whose work is tasty indeed. Coming up with an endless supply of killer riffs, melodies and licks, Chrissochos and Psarros sometimes channel Smith/Murray at their best, but other times drift into more distinctly Greek melodies, which lends a somewhat unique flavor to the proceedings and enables Phoenix Reign to stand out among their peers. What I love about the guitar work here is that it's never static, as these guys have a penchant for riding a particular riff or theme for exactly long enough for it to stick, but not so long for it to wear out its welcome, before shifting gear into another great part. In that way, it really does remind me of the old Smith/Murray guitar approach, before Harris's writing became so repetitive and recycled within songs. The result is that any given song on 'Destination unknown' may have, not just one, but 5 or 6 awesome guitar parts that fit perfectly into the track (check out "Another night alone" for a perfect example).
Phoenix Reign also distinguish themselves with the diversity of their songwriting. Whereas most bands occupying this musical space are all true metal all the time, these guys (and girl) serve up a more varied attack. Tracks like the 11-minute Steve Harris-inspired historical opus "Constantinople 1453 (on the eve of the fall)" are nestled alongside songs about self-empowerment and perseverance ("Transcendent" and "Moving on", for example), with a couple of relationship-type songs thrown into the mix as well. It is those relationship songs ("Forgotten" and "Open your eyes") that throw the biggest musical curveballs, as well, sounding almost poppy in places yet still sporting plenty of metallic bite thanks to the irrepressible Chrissochos/Psarros duo. "Constantinople 1453" is an obvious favorite, with its epic scope, traditional Greek instrumentation, and jaw-dropping melody line that would rank among the all-time best Maiden melodies had Steve Harris written it. Also worthy of note are the catchy, anthemic tunes, "Run now" and "Moving on", which vocalist Theresa Gaffney pulls off exceptionally well with her clean, powerful delivery. It's a testament to Phoenix Reign's songwriting skill and versatility that the 56-minute running time never gets boring and is bereft of clunker songs, although I would have cut a couple of the wimpier parts if I were calling the shots. Also, there's a chord progression in "Wherever you are" that sounds uncannily like a Ripper-era Priest song ("Hell is home" I believe). I don't mind some symbolic tipping of the cap in this kind of music, but the correlation with this part is just too close for comfort.
Overall, Phoenix Reign have done an outstanding job with a very satisfying debut CD that is essential listening for fans of the genre. If they can ditch the occasionally sappy lyrics, pitch the occasional poppy touches, and retain their fresh approach to songwriting, their next CD may be a bona fide hammer, indeed. For now, however, 'Destination unknown' earns a well-deserved recommendation from this scribe. Now, what are the odds of a Twilight Odyssey/Phoenix Reign tour? I'd make a roadtrip for that in a heartbeat.
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