Steel Assassin - War of the eight saints 4.5/5

Reviewed: 10-12-07


1. Hawkwood
2. Curse of the black prince
3. Hill of crosses
4. Sword in the stone
5. Merchants of force
6. Bloodlust quest
7. Tartarus
8. Metalfire
9. Victory
10. Barabbas
11. War of the eight saints

By the time I reached the quaint town of Boston for college in the late 80s, local metal heroes Steel Assassin had already packed it in. They cast a long shadow over the Boston scene, however, as I remember going to countless gigs by Meliah Rage, Wargasm and Seka where people would be overheard to mutter, "Yeah, this show's great, but damn do I miss Steel Assassin!" Back in those pre-Internet, information-starved days, I always viewed Steel Assassin as one of those "holy grail" bands that I was destined always to seek out but never to find. In 1997, I was able to score a copy of the rare 'From the vaults' CD compiling much of Steel Assassin's early 80s work. While I enjoyed it, the iffy recording quality and sometimes skull-piercing screams of vocalist Doni Escolas definitely detracted from the listening experience. Shortly thereafter, I heard bassist Phil Grasso's solo project, Madd Hunter, which featured some solid musical ideas but was hampered by Grasso's ill-advised decision to sing himself. Just when I had despaired of ever hearing Steel Assassin in their prime, I learned that Sentinel Steel had signed Steel Assassin and would be releasing a brand-new CD featuring 80% of the original line-up, plus a new stellar singer. With Sentinel Steel's impeccable track record for guaranteed quality, and with the added inducement of knowing that the original dreadnaught himself, Wargasm guitarist Rich "One Man Army" Spillberg, was turning the knobs, I couldn't wait to get my hands on 'War of the eight saints'.

In all candor, nothing could have prepared me for just how strong this 'War of the eight saints' CD actually is. Fans of the old-school U.S. traditional/true metal that has long been Sentinel Steel's stock in trade, prepare for a new CD-of-the-year candidate. All of the genre hallmarks are here: Epic song structures, cool historical/mythological lyrics, amazing guitar harmonies, a penchant for galloping tempos, and riffs guaranteed to pin your ears back for days. What makes 'War of the eight saints' stand out, though, is that Steel Assassin are not simply picking up where they left off in the 80s. To the contrary, they have stepped up their game by a quantum leap in the intervening decades. The band's songwriting is tighter, more advanced, more diverse, and all around better than it was in the 80s. Spillberg's production job pulverizes the meager efforts that Steel Assassin had to work with back in the day. And, most importantly of all, the band have unveiled their secret weapon in the form of new vocalist John Falzone. Holy golden lungs, Batman! Where has this guy been for all of these years? The promo materials compare him to Soto and Dickinson, both of which I hear, but Falzone also frequently reminds me of Jioti Parcharidis (Human Fortress), who undoubtedly ranks among my top 3 favorite new singers of the 2000s (Mathias Blad and Nils Patrik Johansson being the others). Falzone elevates excellent songs to superlative songs with his power-packed, emotive performance.

But let's return to the songwriting for a moment, because that's where 'War of the eight saints' really shines. Steel Assassin have taken their 80s sound, attitude and influences, and leavened them with a certain maturity and freshness that prevents these songs from sounding stale or forced. They have brilliantly varied the tempos and moods. As is my wont, I immediately gravitated to the stellar speed tracks like the crushing "Barabbas", the galloping "Hawkwood", and of course the relentless "Curse of the black prince", all of which absolutely lay waste to everything in their path. But the more grandiose tracks like the 10-minute closing title song, the infectious "Sword in the stone", the piledriving "Merchants of force", and the innovative, almost folky "Bloodlust quest" are also mesmerizing in their power and grace. The instrumental, "Victory", features some of the catchiest guitar work on the entire CD, courtesy of axemasters Kevin Curran and Mike Mooney, and is anything but a throwaway track. In fact, of the 11 songs on display, only "Metalfire" misses the mark, sounding perhaps a bit "stock" (to quote Lars Ulrich of Metallica) and lacking the magic dust sprinkled liberally over the remaining cuts. My only criticism of the CD generally (and it is a nitpick, to be sure) is that a few choruses seem repeated to excess, a la the Iron Maiden 'Brave new world' syndrome, albeit not to that extent.

Let's cut to the chase: this new Steel Assassin is a state-of-the-art U.S. true metal CD. Devotees of the genre will be jumping backflips over this release. When the wisdom of maturity collides with the spark of true metallic inspiration, great things can happen. And they have here. After all these years, Steel Assassin have the fire in their bellies, the technical chops, the musical vision, and the heavy metal know-how to pull it off. This just may be Sentinel Steel's finest hour as a record label, and 'War of the eight saints' will undoubtedly be remembered as a musical highlight of 2007 for many a true metal heart worldwide.




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