Burning Starr - Land of the dead 4/5

Reviewed: 6-1-12


1. Land of the dead
2. Sands of time
3. Twilight of the gods
4. Stranger in paradise
5. Here we are
6. Warning fire
7. Daughter of darkness
8. When blood and steel collide
9. On the wings of the night
10. Never again
11. Until the end

Most devoted followers of traditional heavy metal will recognize the name Jack Starr. After all, he was the founder and lead guitarist in Virgin Steele when the scrappy New Yorkers first rose to prominence in the ‘Guardians of the flame’ days in the early 80s. After splitting with David DeFeis and Co. prior to Virgin Steele’s ‘Noble savage’ opus, Starr formed a new band, Burning Starr, which has sporadically released roughly a half dozen CDs over the last quarter century. The early highlight in Burning Starr’s catalogue is 1986’s ‘No turning back’, featuring Mike Tirelli on vocals, which was reissued as one of the first CDs on the then-fledgling Sentinel Steel label in 1998. This history will be familiar, I suspect, to most readers.

That said, I get the feeling most people don’t know how awesome/essential the most recent pair of Burning Starr releases are for devotees of stout-hearted pure true American heavy metal. The ‘Defiance’ CD released on Joey DeMaio’s Magic Circle label in 2009 was a triumph (not an agony!), thanks to outstanding songwriting channeling the best of Manowar and Virgin Steele, the superb guitar work of Starr, and the brilliant vocals of newcomer Todd Michael Hall. Unfortunately, ‘Defiance’ was not widely distributed on these shores, so it went largely unnoticed. Now Jack Starr’s smoldering constellation returns with ‘Land of the dead’, released at the end of last year on the well-known (and well-distributed) Limb Music Products label. Hall returns on vocals, as do longtime Starr collaborator Ned Meloni on bass and ex-Manowar drummer Kenny “Rhino” Earl. Starr also gets a little help from a couple of Manowar alum axeslingers, in the form of guest solo spots from Ross the Boss and David Shankle. Cool touch. It’s a killer line-up, but to paraphrase Armored Saint’s immortal question: Can they deliver?

Yes, yes, overwhelmingly yes. I don’t how Starr and co-writers Meloni (and to a lesser extent Hall) became so inspired and energized, but this is intoxicating stuff. Big melodies, compelling guitar themes, catchy choruses, and powerhouse vocals are the name of the game on ‘Land of the dead’. As on ‘Defiance’, I think it’s fair to say that the band take many of their musical cues from Manowar, but that likely stems from Starr’s background as a peer, contemporary, and geographical neighbor of DeMaio’s troupe, rather than any conscious attempt to ape ‘Fighting the world’ or something. Burning Starr and Manowar both specialize in punchy, fist-throwing melodic true metal hymns, easy on the ears and rarely taxing on the mind, with fantastic vocals and uplifting melodies. There are differences, though, with Burning Starr favoring more thoughtful lyrics, better riffs, slightly more nuanced arrangements, and perhaps more of a European flavor than we have heard from Manowar in more than 15 years. (I’m not denigrating Manowar, by the way. I love that band, so for me to say that Burning Starr matches up favorably to the self-proclaimed Kings of Metal is not a compliment bestowed lightly.)

It would be easy to sit here and spin out a series of superlatives directed at the band members’ individual performances (particularly Todd Michael Hall – holy crap, what a voice!), the spot-on production values instilled by Polish metal maestro Bart Gabriel (who also works with the likes of Lonewolf and Crystal Viper), or the striking cover art courtesy of legendary fantasy artist Ken Kelly. Honestly, though, the Starr (heh!) of the show is the songs themselves, a good half-dozen of which may vie for a place on my year-end lists. “Sands of time”, “When blood and steel collide”, “On the wings of the night”, “Warning fire”, and “Stranger in paradise” are all top-quality true metal hymns of the highest order. These are the kinds of songs that obliterate your mind and capture your imagination from the very first time you play them, the kinds of songs that you spontaneously begin singing while you’re brushing your teeth before you go to bed or eating your Cheerios at the breakfast table, the kinds of songs that make you reflexively push the “back” button on your MP3 player as soon as they end.

In short, this is a no-brainer for fans of the old-school, 80s true metal style. My only mild reservations would be that a few songs lack the magic burning spark that ignites the others, and that the 60-minute running time could have been pared down by 10-15 minutes to sharpen the attack. But this is really good stuff. For my money, ‘Land of the dead’ is easily one of the top 3 or so CDs Jack Starr has recorded in his career. How many 80s metal survivors are pumping out material in the 2nd decade of the 21st millennium that can stand toe to toe with what they did 25 or 30 years ago? Precious few. And for that, I say, bravo, Mr. Starr. Long may you burn!




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