Thursday, December 22, 2011

Theocracy - As The World Bleeds (2011)

Heavy metal fans can be a persnickety bunch, often being overly sensitive about genre boundaries or what category a particular band or album fits into.  If there's too much influence or sound borrowed from an outside style, or too many "unmetal" elements injected into the style, it often becomes the death knell for a band trying to gain crossover appeal between metal fans and rock fans in general.  Metal bands often have to walk a slippery slope between artistic integrity and pleasing their fanbase.  Steer too far away from your metal roots and you're branded a traitor.  Don't inject enough "freshness" into your sound or music and after a couple albums you run the risk of being a "stale, washed up has-been" in the metal scene.

Thankfully, Theocracy doesn't have to deal with either question.  They are a metal band through to their very core, as their 3 albums will attest to.  And each album has been a different experience from the others, offering different elements and feeling while retaining the same basic metal constructs that fans have come to expect.  With this, their 3rd album release, we get a further development of the Theocracy sound.  For the genre-specific out there, this band falls squarely in the "Progressive Power Metal" category, but to tag them merely as such does this band a grave injustice.  Theocracy have to be heard to be believed, and their music transcends the basic category it falls into because of just how well it's written, performed, and just executed overall.

In a bit of turnabout from 2008's "Mirror of Souls", "As the World Bleeds" sees the band beginning the proceedings with the longest song of the album, the epic opener "I AM".  This song perfectly encapsulates everything this band is about: it's brimming with catchy melodies, contains both quiet moments and driving metal, is passionate and anthemic, and takes the listener on a journey while listening.  As you listen through the rest of the album, you get much of the same in varying degrees - not every song is nearly as epic as the opening track, but the variety the album presents in tempo, melodic feel, heaviness, etc. is part of what keeps Theocracy albums so captivating from beginning to end.  The songwriting is also a big part of what makes this record such a winner.  In this regard, "As the World Bleeds" is quite possibly their strongest record.  "Mirror of Souls" had a lot of heavy-hitter tracks which really showed what the band could do, but a couple of the tracks were a touch less memorable after multiple listens. I have spun this CD numerous times so far and have not tired of the material at all.  While some songs tend to blend together a touch more than those on "Mirror of Souls", the overall strength of the album as a whole outweighs this minor shortcoming.

As expected, the instrumentation on this album is fantastic.  With Matt Smith moving full-on into the role of vocalist, one might expect this album to sound a lot different than previous Theocracy releases in terms of style and presentation, but it really is consistent with what has come before in terms of songwriting approach and quality.  Guitars still ring through the speakers with sufficient crunch and authority, and solo work is as good here as it has been.  In some ways, the guitar solo work is a step up from the previous album as there is more of it here and it is more varied an interesting.  Bass guitar adds nice weight underneath and while not being overly flashy, is well played and a good compliment.  Drum work is as good as ever with on-point double bass work and the right balance of speed and precision with dynamics and range when called for.  Keyboards sound great here, encompassing a number of different sounds and adding plenty of texture to the overall presentation.  Matt Smith's vocals are in fine form here, as strong as he was on "Mirror of Souls" and perhaps even a half-notch above that album in terms of his overall vocal use.  He really pushes himself here both in terms of the use of his upper range, as well as his overall versatility and dynamic range.

What more needs to be said?  This is a strong contender for me for "Metal Album Of The Year" if such an award existed in my little world.  The year isn't over yet, and there is at least one other hotly anticipated album I haven't heard yet that could rival this for sheer quality and presentation, but either way, Theocracy delivers again in spades with this release.  If you are one of the few who didn't get into "Mirror of Souls" because of the epic 22-minute suite at the end, give this album a fair shake.  I think you'll find the consistency of songwriting and quality of material to be welcome, and the immaculate performances here are some of the best you'll hear in metal music this year.  If you're in any way a fan (casual or hardcore) of progressive rock and/or metal, you won't want to miss this one.  Essential.


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