Steel Tormentor - Return of a king 4/5
1. Ghost of Avalon
2. Evil coming
5. Soul stealer
6. Into the black
7. Return of a King
8. Warrior (single edit)
It’s taken a long, long, long time, but Steel Tormentor are finally back with the follow-up to their cult favourite debut, ‘Unleashed’. While long delayed, the band now find themselves in a world where their NWOBHM-influenced style is suddenly back in favour in certain markets, and have arrived at as good a time as any to make a broader impression with what is an excellent 2nd CD.
Sadly recorded again without help from a label, rather than go for the home studio approach again, ‘Return of a king’ is the product of working with professional producers, and the difference in quality shows. Taking over a year to finally put together due to a variety of hitches, the short version is that the bass, drums and lead guitar on the final product were recorded by Nick Savio in Italy, with the vocals and rhythm guitars tracked by the fast-rising German Lasse Lammert, who also stitched it all together in the mastering process.
While the delay in finally getting the CD released has no doubt been frustrating beyond measure, the decision to go pro this time has definitely been the correct one – ‘Unleashed’ was a fine CD, but when listened to next to this one, it is glaringly apparent how much better the songs could have sounded if not confined by the muffled recording quality.
Lammert’s trademark granite-thick guitar tone is a perfect match for Steel Tormentor’s style, keeping them competitive in the field of modern recording standards but maintaining the gritty meat-and-potatoes approach they apply to their songs. This coupled with a change in policy to play in a lower tuning gives the CD a real extra layer of heaviness without compromising their old-school ideals.
Playing lower has also given vocalist James Kelly a new lease of life, as he can now keep loading the songs with soaring choruses without having to force his voice into a key it wasn’t really built for. The audible straining that could be heard on some of the debut CD’s high notes is gone and while some purists would no doubt sneer at “cheating” like this, the results speak for themselves, and his display is a fine cap on a CD where the performances at least match but often exceed those on its predecessor.
Under all the fancy new trappings though, it is doubtlessly still the same old Steel Tormentor, still plying their trade of epic NWOBHM-cum-old style power metal, built on punchy riffs and loaded with colourful solos and relentlessly upbeat melodies. After the short instrumental opener, “Ghost of Avalon”, “Evil coming” goes straight for the jugular with the vocals beginning almost as soon as the song does, leading to the first of many killer choruses.
“Warrior” and “Soul stealer” are a couple of my personal favourite Steel Tormentor songs that have only been available as live recordings until now, and it is a joy to hear them benefit from the gleaming production values of ‘Return of a king’. “Warrior” is my pick for the band’s best song so far and is possessed of one of the best power metal choruses of the last few years – simple, inspired perfection pulled together in a only a couple of lines.
Despite the short running time, there is still a bit of room for branching out in other directions towards the end of the CD after the relentless gallop of the first 5 songs. “Into the black” has been in the band’s repertoire for many a year now, but when finally put to record it stands out from the songs it keeps company with it’s contrasting ‘sweet and sour’ style, the charging chorus a bright eruption from the gloomy, downbeat verses.
This is followed by the title track, which is a really monumental piece of work, and something of a different approach to the 13-minute song. Spending a considerable amount of time on a bass-led build up section, it eventually erupts into a near 10-minute instrumental rampage that manages to switch tempo enough times for interest levels not to go on the wane. With a huge mass of solos battling for prominence, you really get a taste for the individual styles of the 2 guitarists here – though I’ll be damned if I can tell which is which, you can definitely tell when Kelly and Norman Rafter (who wasn’t present on the debut) switch places and it adds an extra dynamic not just to this song but the CD as a whole.
If I had a complaint, it would be that ‘Return of a king’ is just a tad too short – strip away the single edit of “Warrior” tacked on to the end of the CD (not very different to the full version, but it is interesting to compare the 2) and there are only really 6 full songs. “Ghost of Avalon” is a fine piece of work, but its main job is really setting the scene for what is to follow – more “The ides of march” than “Transylvania”, if you follow me. Keeping a CD short and sweet these days when 50-minutes-plus is usually the standard - and not always welcome - is commendable, but I can’t shake the feeling that one more song would have given the perfect balance to things.
Still, if a CD just leaves you wanting more then the band behind it are obviously on the right track, and that ‘Return of a king’ doesn’t come as any form of disappointment after so many years waiting is even more indicative of it’s quality. A definite step up from what was an impressive debut, hopefully this represents Steel Tormentor just getting started.
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