Beyond Fear - s/t 3.5/5

Reviewed: 8-11-06


1. Scream machine
2. And... you will die
3. Save me
4. The human race
5. Coming at you
6. Dreams come true
7. Telling lies
8. I don't need this
9. Words of wisdom
10. My last words
11. Your time has come
12. The faith

At this point, the story of Tim "Ripper" Owens is the stuff of heavy metal legend. For that reason, I'll spare you the overblown career retrospective of this ex-Winters Bane, ex-Judas Priest vocalist who now fronts U.S. metal titans Iced Earth. During a period of extended downtime from his service with Schaffer's army, Owens formed his own band, Beyond Fear, whose music was quickly pigeonholed in press releases and internet forums as a more modern, aggressive and heavy take on the classic metal stylings of Judas Priest and Black Sabbath. Things happened quickly for the band, whose first live performance happened last spring at Cleveland's Brave Words 6-Pack festival. Within months, Beyond Fear were snapped up by SPV and recorded their debut CD under producer extraordinaire Jim Morris.

To these ears, Owens is a world-class metal singer, blessed with one of the most powerful, versatile, and instantly recognizable sets of pipes in the business. His work on material like Priest's "Cathedral spires" and Iced Earth's "Gettysburg" is jaw-droppingly good, showcasing paint-peeling piercing screams a la prime-era Halford, a meaty mid-range, and even a more mournful, melancholy tone in spots. That said, I was skeptical that Beyond Fear would be a worthwhile musical endeavor for the traditional-minded metalhead. After all, Owens is an unproven, untested songwriter. More importantly, I was concerned about the musical direction of the project. Knowing Owens' affinity for acts like Disturbed and Godsmack, I had visions of a tough-guy nu-metal Priest fusion band. Not good. Then there's the fact that Owens has assembled a band of virtual unknowns who (judging from booklet photos) appear quite enamored of the Misfits. The exception is bassist Dennis Hayes, a known player from Winters Bane and, more recently, Seven Witches. Finally, the cover artwork is atrocious, a hideous design that a middle-school student could have slapped together in a heartbeat.

My fears were unfounded, as this s/t CD is actually quite an enjoyable ride. Beyond Fear deliver 12 punchy, to-the-point songs in 47 minutes. As expected, the crunch-and-bruise factor predominates, but not in a Pantera or nu-metal way. Accurate musical points of reference might be Halford's 'Crucible' opus, a more melodic Benedictum, or, ironically, a less power metallish Winters Bane 'Redivivus'. In other words, for all the heaviness imbued in these songs, there's still loads of melody, both in the guitar work and in the vocals, such that the CD comes across as a very heavy classic metal release with a crushing modern production. Fans of heavier Judas Priest songs from the last decade, heavier and darker Primal Fear, or Halford's solo output will have an absolute field day here.

Of course, the number 1 selling point is Owens' vocal performance, which is perhaps his finest hour in a career that is fairly littered with exceptional singing efforts. He has never sounded more powerful or more in control, and this collection of songs showcases the varied aspects of his voice brilliantly. Opener "Scream machine" sees Ripper sticking almost exclusively to his upper-register a la "Painkiller" or "Resurrection", with simply devastating results. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, "Dreams come true" features his melancholy voice, last seen on the spellbinding portion of the "Gettysburg" trilogy in which the 2 best friends fighting for opposing armies meet the night before to lament their fate. The musicians backing Ripper are more than competent, as witnessed by the pummeling rhythm section and the guitars, which are more fluid and melody-minded than I would have expected. And, needless to say, the Morris production is as subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull.

At the end of the day, though, the Achilles heel of this debut CD lies in the inconsistent nature of the material. About half of the songs range from very good (i.e., "The human race", "Your time has come", "Words of wisdom", "The faith") to downright exceptional (i.e., "Scream machine", "My last words"). The other half are in the decent-to-good range, let down by uninspiring melodies, repetitious choruses, and a bit too much "tough guy" sentiment. The thing about it is that Owens' golden voice elevates even the mediocre tracks to highly listenable and worthwhile status. The result is a solid, very enjoyable heavy metal release that is definitely several notches above average in the crowded marketplace. If Owens and co-writer John Comprix stay the stylistic course, sharpen their writing skills, and get some help in the lyric department, then Beyond Fear's sophomore release just might be beyond amazing.




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