Friday, December 27, 2013
Theocracy - Theocracy re-issue (2013)
Anyone who has read through a number of posts on this blog over the last few years knows I'm a big Theocracy fan. Their last 2 albums, "As the World Bleeds" and "Mirror of Souls" are both excellent examples of progressive power metal, and I own both the CD and vinyl issues of both, as well as the 7" vinyl release for the "Wages of Sin" single. Needless to say, I'm a fan. That wasn't always the case, however, as I didn't discover them right away when Matt Smith debuted the project a decade ago. And after I did listen to samples online and heard some of the material, I wasn't immediately taken with it like some were. I bought the debut, listened to it and shelved it, having been somewhat unsatisfied with Matt's vocal performance and the lack of overly memorable material. 2008's "Mirror of Souls" was a completely different story, as it hit me hard when it came out, and was exactly what I wanted to hear.
Now that Matt and company have established themselves as one of the front runners of the power/prog scene in the US and abroad, Ulterium records has seen fit to re-issue the debut and give it a bit of a proper release. On the original, the mix was a bit weak, and didn't give the material enough weight. In addition, Matt used a drum machine for all the drum parts, which didn't really bother me, but compared with what followed, it sounded quite out of place. This re-issue seeks to fix that by doing 3 things. First, drummer Shawn Benson re-recorded the drum tracks so the album could have proper drums. Second, the whole thing has been remixed so that the instruments sound better alongside and in conjunction with one another. And third, the remaster has given the whole thing a more "full" and "big" sound compared to the original.
For those who were fans of the original, this is going to be a treat. There are albums that are "remastered" and re-issued to cash in on fan fervor, but often those fall into the "make it louder" category where no real tidying takes place, only volume levels are adjusted. Some remix/remaster projects legitimately improve the release on multiple levels, and I believe this is a good example of what a little TLC can do to really improve upon something without taking away from what the original was or was trying to accomplish. When listening to the original and this re-issue back to back, I immediately noticed how much cleaner the mix was in this new version, and you notice a lot of background flourishes, like acoustic guitars, symphonic bits, and keyboard backgrounds that you may not have heard before unless you cranked it up full blast. In addition, though Matt's vocals are still the original recordings, they sound a lot more like the Matt Smith that Theocracy fans have come to enjoy.
The guitars don't crunch as much as latter Theocracy material, but there's a lot going on here, as the album is a bit more layered because it was just Matt writing, recording, and performing everything on his own, so he could afford to go all out. Bass guitar is present, but still not very noticeable in the mix, so aside from the low rumble you hear under the guitar and keyboards, you don't get much of that coming through outside of parts where there is no guitar (like during an early portion of "Twist of Fate"). There is a lot of keyboard work on the album, which is more prominent than the 2 albums that followed, and Matt makes good use of the instrument here. There are a lot of keyboard layers going on, and he makes use of all kinds of effects like bells, a harpsichord sound, and various other symphonic instrument sounds to try and flesh out the sound of the record. And of course Shawn's drumming on the album is far superior to the original drum machine parts, and makes the album sound so much more vital than it did in its original incarnation.
I'm going to be in the minority here and say that I don't think this is Matt's best work for a number of reasons. Matt was still developing as a vocalist here, and there are spots where he doesn't show as much control over his vocals as he came to demonstrate on this album's follow-up. The songs all sound great to me, and the melodies are nice, but I don't feel as though they're quite as catchy or memorable as those on either of the next 2 records. I liken it to the "Wages of Sin" single - that is a good song, but I understand why it was left off "Mirror of Souls" because it's not as memorable as any of the songs on the album and may have come across as merely filler. The guitars don't have the authority or presence they ought to, and that takes away slightly from the power the record should have based on the style and sound of the music. Not to say they don't sound good, but when I crank this album up loud compared with the other 2, it just doesn't hit me as hard. Even with the remix/remaster, which sounds a lot better than the original, I feel as though the mix is still the tiniest bit claustrophobic at times, in that there are bits that should have a bit more separation. I know I'm nitpicking here, but Matt set the bar pretty high with "Mirror of Souls" and this re-release still hasn't met that, even though it's still exceedingly good.
Ultimately, fans of Theocracy like myself are going to want to have this in their collection, especially those who missed out on the original CD release and aren't willing to pay a premium on eBay for the original release. I would say that's a smart move, because this just sounds so much better than the original version. Folks just discovering Theocracy would do well to wait on this and give either of the band's other 2 albums a listen first, as I feel those records better represent what Theocracy has become as a full band effort. There's no denying that 10 years on, however, this is still a powerful album that deserves much of the praise lauded upon it. I just don't personally feel that it's the absolute apex of the style as some fans have tried to assert. Your mileage may vary, but I still recommend this highly to anyone looking for a quality prog/power metal album.