Total Eclipse - Spellcaster 3.5/5

Reviewed: 4-1-12





Tracklist:

1. Hell on earth
2. Final evolution
3. Storm warning
4. Spellcaster
5. 7 trials
6. The flames of eternity
7. Above and below
8. Ashes of Eden pt. II


An intriguing package arrived on my doorstep a couple of weeks ago. It was from the management of Bay Area power metallers Total Eclipse. Now, I was familiar with the band from their LMP debut CD from 2003, called ‘Ashes of Eden’, of which I was none too enamored aside from an amazing cut called “Storm warning”. I had been intending to give some love to Total Eclipse’s ‘Spellcaster’ CD for some time, but those noble intentions had fallen casualty to the usual dilemma of too much music, too little time. Well, the promo pack supplied just the kick in the pants I needed to mobilize and let y’all know about this worthy ‘Spellcaster’ CD. So here we are.

What made the package “intriguing” was its timing. ‘Spellcaster’ cannot be classified as a “new” release under even the most liberal definition of the term. It was originally released in late 2009. But in truth, this CD traces its roots far further back in time than that. ‘Spellcaster’ was actually recorded in the summer of 2000, some 3 years before the ‘Ashes of Eden’ CD. And it was recorded and produced by Uwe Lulis (ex-Grave Digger, Rebellion), who some may recall was LMP’s “house” producer for a number of years. It’s fascinating, really. This is a “lost” Total Eclipse CD. Did LMP fund the effort and then simply decide not to release it? Did the band self-finance it all as a way of trying to get LMP’s attention, then shelve the project? And why is Total Eclipse only now giving ‘Spellcaster’ a push, by and through its management, when it was recorded nearly 12 years ago and originally saw the light of day more than 2 years ago? So many questions.

The shame of it all is that ‘Spellcaster’ is actually quite a solid effort, especially seen through the lens of the still-developing power metal landscape of the late-90s when these songs would have been conceived and arranged. Compared to other U.S. bands marketing themselves as power metal in those heady days, when everything was exciting and new, Total Eclipse really would have stood out in a positive way. You see, the music on ‘Spellcaster’ put the “power” in power metal, with few if any keyboards and a savage twin guitar attack, courtesy of skilled axemasters Erik Cameron and Chris Cameron. The Cameron brothers kicked in neo-classical flurries, punishing riffs that borrowed a touch from the Bay Area thrash scene (the riff in “7 Trials” sounds like early Testament), and fretboard gymnastics at a high level of technicality, yet with melodies that remain surprisingly accessible. From a songwriting standpoint, Total Eclipse strived for complexity in a way that many U.S. power metal bands did in those days, sorta taking cues from Arch-era Fates Warning with all the twists and turns in the music. Indeed, 3 songs on ‘Spellcaster’ top the 9-minute mark. This wasn’t at all the “tra la la” kind of happy power metal that was setting Europe alight in those days, but was instead a much more muscular, savage beast. “The flames of eternity” feels like an Iron Maiden epic, with that familiar Steve Harris gallop. Opener “Hell on earth” is a 9-minute rollercoaster that leaves the listener breathless. And best of all, this ‘Spellcaster’ CD includes an early version of the song “Storm warning”, which really is a superlative example of top-shelf U.S. power metal. That song rules.

None of this is to imply that ‘Spellcaster’ is an unmitigated triumph. There are some flaws. Singer Andy Dracona Giardina is a native of Italy, and for better or worse attempts the kind of vocal histrionics favored by many of his countrymen. To my unsophisticated ears, many of the high notes sound a bit off. It’s not that Giardina’s a bad singer, but he has an unfortunate tendency to try to sing melodies that are about 10% beyond his capabilities. Some may find him grating, even as others applaud his obvious heart and enthusiasm. Me, I’m somewhere in between. More troubling is the varying quality of the recordings on ‘Spellcaster’. Track 8, “Ashes of Eden pt. II”, is specifically labeled an “unreleased demo version” and is so dubious sonically that it is a difficult listen. Other distracting idiosyncrasies from one track to the next make the whole package feel like a compilation of demos rather than a full cohesive product. And finally, this CD is a product of its time. It hearkens back to an era when U.S. power metal bands were really trying to find their way in a confused metal marketplace that was just beginning to show signs of life after years of dormancy. Remember all those Powermad festival bands? I do. How many of them would hold up well today? Not many. So ‘Spellcaster’ has that handicap too, through no fault of its own.

At the end of the day, I enjoy this CD a good bit. It’s far more than the mere anachronistic historical curiosity I was expecting. The songs and performances have genuine fire and bite, and there’s a significant chance I would have loved ‘Spellcaster’ had it seen the light of day in the year 2000 as it should have. But I keep returning to these questions. What has become of Total Eclipse? Information on the Internet suggests that the Cameron brothers are long gone, but that Giardina has kept Total Eclipse alive with a new CD. In liner notes from the 2009 package, Giardina detailed an array of planned releases under the Total Eclipse banner, including a remixed/remastered release of the ‘Guardians of metal’ demo, as well as a covers CD, and a CD of new material. None of these events have apparently come to pass. On the strength of ‘Spellcaster’, though, I’ll cross my fingers that perhaps the fates will smile on Giardina and some of these planned Total Eclipse projects may yet come to fruition.



KIT




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