ValSans - Sword 4/5

Reviewed: 9-1-10


1. Mjolnir
2. On the battlefield
3. ValSans
4. The allegiance
5. Hall of fame
6. Eyes of a viper
7. Lady of the lake
8. Metal crusade
9. Golden treasure
10. Eppur si muove

Okay, boys and girls, pop quiz time. Our category is Arthurian lore. Q: What is the "val sans retour"? A: It is the "valley of no return", the place where the diabolical Morgana Lefay imprisoned her lovers until the valiant Lancelot came along and broke the spell. With that nugget of trivia in mind, it's not hard to decipher the origins of ValSans' name. Indeed, any doubt on that score is conclusively dispelled by the band's eponymous song, whose lyrics tell a tale of triumph in our bold protagonists' escape from the val sans retour. Kinda cool, actually.

Austria is not known for traditional metal. Gothic/symphonic metal? Sure. Death/black metal? Okay. But sword-wielding, chest-beating, testosterone-fueled classic metal? Not a chance. I'll never forget witnessing Grave Digger and Therion playing co-headlining sets in Salzburg and Vienna a few years ago, with the audience going ballistic for Christofer Johnsson's crew and being mostly apathetic to Uncle Reaper & Co. (Then-unknown openers Sabaton barely merited a yawn from these crowds.) Yet from this true metal wasteland, ValSans have emerged with their self-released, full-length debut 'Sword'. The Austrian quintet play an aggressive but highly polished brand of plain ol' European heavy metal that fits comfortably in the stylistic niche populated by acts like Wizard, Majesty, faster Hammerfall, Dragonsfire, Viron and early Nocturnal Rites. It's the kind of CD that sounds instantly familiar, instantly comfortable, from the moment you press play until it ends 52 minutes later. Let me put it to you like this: Within 3 seconds after the CD begins, your ears will be assaulted with a galloping riff, a fast drumbeat, and a swelling Wizard-style shout-along chorus of "The Hammer! The Hammer! The Hammer of Thor!" For those of you who, like me, worship at the altar of classic Manowar and the bands whom they have influenced, ValSans are a real treat.

This 'Sword' CD is well balanced among uptempo smashers, epic war tunes, and sing-a-long anthems. More importantly, ValSans have managed to sustain a remarkably high level of quality throughout the 10 songs on display. Opener "Mjolnir" is not only a splendid true metal crusher about the hammer of Thor, but in an unexpected twist its lyrics decry the Nazis' misappropriation of this symbol, emphatically proclaiming that Mjolnir "is the hammer of power NOT OF HATE." Lead single/video track "Eyes of a viper" put me in mind of faster, earlier Hammerfall, with a devastating chorus hook. "On the battlefield" is a straightahead traditional metal tune with a gang-shouted chorus line until it abruptly shape-shifts into a killer folky Falconer bit (with growled backing vocals) at the end. "Metal crusade" and "Allegiance" (sample lyric: "Tell me what protects your soul/Heavy metal does it all") are the kind of crowd-pleasing, fist-pounding hymns that were just made for the live arena. And the "ValSans" track is a mostly speedy melodic rush with both smooth and gang-shouted backing vocals in the chorus. Speaking of vocals, lead singer Andy B. Barna sounds to these ears reminiscent of both Wizard's Sven D'Anna and Hammerfall's Joacim Cans in spots, albeit not quite as accomplished as either of them. Barna falters only on the quieter, ballady bits, but otherwise acquits himself quite well.

In the final analysis, 'Sword' is an immensely convincing and highly satisfying slab of well-executed true metal. The songs, performances and production are of such a high caliber here that I'm mystified as to how ValSans have slipped through the cracks both inside and outside their homeland. I'd love to see a discriminating underground classic metal label like Pure Steel Records, Metal on Metal Records, or Karthago Records pick up 'Sword' and get it some distribution in the heavy metal universe at large. It's too strong a CD to languish in complete obscurity. And while we're at it: European festival promoters (Keep it True, Swordbrothers, Headbangers Open Air, etc., I'm looking at you), have a listen to ValSans and book them. This band deserves to be heard, and with a few breaks could become quite a force in true metal circles.




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