Ignitor - The spider queen 3.5/5

Reviewed: 2-1-10


1. Magnus opus
2. Evil calling
3. I never knew
4. The games begin
5. Angels descend
6. The spider queen
7. Rune of power
8. What love denies
9. Construct of destruction
10. My heart turns to dust
11. Dynasty of darkness

Back in 2007, Texas old-school metallers Ignitor rocked my world with their debut full-length CD, 'Road of bones'. I raved about it, on this site and elsewhere, touting the band's fiery intensity, lyrical versatility, terrific gritty vocals by frontwoman Erika Swinnich, and pure devotion to the American 80s metal art form. Certain other reviewers were not so enamored of 'Road of bones', but that fact did not deter me from pronouncing it to be among my favorite releases of the year. I could scarcely contain my excitement when I heard that Ignitor were readying a metal opera called 'The spider queen' for release through the Cruz del Sur label.

Like any good opera or Shakespearean tragedy, 'The spider queen' is a tale of love, betrayal, deception, treachery, and senseless bloodshed. Without going overboard on the details, the gist of it is that our protagonist, Helmut, is raised by his kindly grandmother following the tragic demise of his parents at the hands of an evil queen. Helmut is obsessed with seeking vengeance, yet when the opportunity comes to exact same, he falls for the feminine wiles of the beautiful queen (whose derriere features prominently in the foreground of the CD cover art). Only later does he learn, to his undoubted consternation and dismay, that the queen is not as she appears to be, but is actually a hideous flesh-eating spider who assumes human form to distract its prey. With Grandma's help, Helmut defeats the spider queen. Triumph and jubilation ensue, right? Wrong. Too late, Helmut finds out that the spider queen was none other than his own mother, who had been cursed by sweet Grandma when Helmut was a baby. Overcome with shame, madness and blinding rage, Helmut flips out and kills everyone, including himself. End of story. Cheery, eh?

I don't have any problem with concept albums or metal operas, or whatever you want to call them, as a general proposition, if they're done properly. Here, the story is entertaining enough, albeit not drawn up with the kind of twisted narrative genius that King Diamond might employ. The weakness with Ignitor's version of a metal opera lies in its execution, not its formulation. Frankly, the biggest detractor lies in the vocal department. Sadly, Swinnich parted ways with Ignitor after 'Road of bones', so there's a new singer on board, in the person of well-traveled Texas metal vet Jason McMaster (Dangerous Toys, Watchtower, etc.). McMaster delivers a largely over-the-top performance punctuated by frequent maniacal screaming. Fans of his previous work may be in ecstasy, and I've seen multiple reviews worshiping at the altar of McMaster for his performance on 'The spider queen'. As for me, I love me some Ripper Owens or Ralf Scheepers-style screeching, but I find McMaster to be too shrill too much of the time, plus his wailing obscures the enunciation of the lyrics, rendering the story nearly impossible to follow without reading along in the booklet. The McMaster distraction is exacerbated in the quieter, more subdued tracks ("I never knew" or "My heart turns to dust" come to mind) when he tries (and largely fails) to channel Matt Barlow. Then there's the guitar work of bandleader Stuart "Batlord" Laurence, which is strangely lacking in ear candy this time, in the sense that there's a noticeable dearth of guitar solos on many tracks. I guess the thinking was to exercise restraint and not overshadow the story with scorching lead guitar histrionics, but the result is that several songs feel incomplete.

Based on the above considerations, I regret to report that 'The spider queen' represents a substantial step down from the shining gem of 'Road of bones' and the early 'Take to the sky' EP. Let me hasten to add, however, that the relative disappointment does not mean that 'The spider queen' fails in absolute terms. Taken in isolation, it's actually a very good traditional metal CD, especially once the narrative arc clicks with the listener after a few spins. Batlord has proven on previous Ignitor outings that he is a capable songwriter, and that talent has not forsaken him here, even if the catchiness factor has been toned down in the name of storytelling. The uptempo, harmony-laden "Rune of power" is an obvious standout that would have been a highlight on 'Road of bones'. Closer "Dynasty of darkness" rocks hard, sporting a pounding mid-paced crunch that for some reason had me thinking Jag Panzer circa 'Thane to the throne'. Video track "Evil calling" successfully captures the best qualities of Ignitor's sound with galloping verses giving way to a strong chorus hook. In a very different style but also quite effective is the overtly melodic and happy-sounding "Angels descend", which perhaps lends a touch of fun hair metal seasoning to the proceedings. There's a lot to like here, if you can get past the vocals, the stylistic variation, and the dearth of ripping axe attacks.

Batlord has been outspoken in press releases and interviews that McMaster has filled the vocal vacancy in a big way and that he can't imagine anyone else singing these songs. I agree with him that Swinnich would not have been a good fit for much of the material on 'The spider queen', given the range of characters, emotions and voices for which it calls. But I don't think that McMaster acquits himself particularly well here, either. If Ignitor wants to continue with the metal opera construct in the future, I would strongly recommend they employ guest vocalists (Avantasia-style) to get the characters right. If, however, they decide to abandon that path, I'd love nothing more than for them to mend fences with Swinnich and get back to the ass-kicking old-school heavy metal neck snappage delivered in abundance on 'Road of bones'.




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