Monday, February 10, 2014

Persuader - The Fiction Maze (2013)

There are times when a band is labeled as a copycat, for better or worse.  Sometimes they deserve such labeling, and sometimes they make enough of their own mark that such branding is unfair.  Either way, being called a clone can often bring attention to a band they may not have garnered otherwise.  If the band is truly a knock-off, this extra attention is usually short-lived, unless they continue to push the envelope of carbon copying.  If not, and the band has made its own mark, then typically those accusations melt away and the group can win its own acclaim.

Such is the case with Persuader, who at times have been labeled as a bit of a Blind Guardian clone.  Truth be told, Persuader was probably not seen as much of a BG clone as vocalist Jens Carlsson's other (former) project Savage Circus, given that band's debut including former BG drummer Thomen Stauch, and Jens' vocals sounding a lot like BG crooner Hansi Kürsch.  In fact, at times, Jens sounds like Hansi so much that it's uncanny.  Nevertheless, Persuader has paved its own path upon the power metal landscape, and are deserving of their own accolades due to the strength of their material.  Their latest album, "The Fiction Maze" shows just why that's the case.

While the band's debut "The Hunter" was a tad raw and rough around the edges, it showed a hungry band with energy that was trying to make their mark.  "Evolution Purgatory" cleaned up the production and tightened the sound, and "When Eden Burns" pumped up the power and intensity a bit while honing the songwriting skills.  In the 8-year interim, these guys haven't lost one ounce of ability, power, or panache.  The band's 4th album, "The Fiction Maze", takes the elements of the previous album and tempers the sound ever so slightly while increasing the melodicism and making a fairly memorable set of songs.  As far as I'm concerned, this is their best album yet.

The album starts out very strong with a triumvirate of songs that play to the strengths they display throughout the album: memorable melodies, hard-hitting lyrics that take the usual fantasy fair of the power metal style into a darker, grittier place, and an absolutely tight presentation.  In the weeks leading up to writing this review, I've had "One Lifetime" running through my head off and on at random.  The chorus' indelible melody will etch itself into your subconscious if you let it.  "War" keeps things rolling with another solid and melodious tune, and "The Fiction Maze" really ups the ante with the band's trademark combo of growled vocals mixed with Jens' gritty tone and excellent range, as well as a relatively epic sound.  "Deep in the Dark" also weighs in with a successful formula for the more "power ballad" approach that doesn't sink into endless cheese.  The rest of the material follows suit, creating a dynamic and full album experience that doesn't quite reach the heights of Blind Guardian's most lauded material, but still earns a place among the best albums of the last 3 or 4 years, and certainly the best of their career thus far.

As with the previous release, the guitar sound Daniel Sundbom and Emil Norberg bring to the mix is thick, hard-hitting, and crunchy.  There are times when the sound is a bit less heavy than you'd expect, but for most of the record, they bring the heavy and then some.  The guys have a knack for writing riffs that combine catchiness and rhythmic energy in a way that doesn't take away from the power of the sound.  As well the solo work, when present, is skillfully played and melodically inclined, and never sounds like they're just wantonly throwing notes out there.  That doesn't mean they don't have flair or style; far from it.  Bass work by Fredrik Hedström is also skilled, with him keeping pace with Daniel and Emil and sometimes adding that extra layer of emphasis underneath things.  His bass occasionally gets lost in the heavier moments, but his low end is a welcome addition here.  Efraim Juntunen is a talented drummer, able to transition seamlessly between drumming in a groove and belting out lightning fast double-bass and faster rhythms and fills.  His drumming fits the material very well, and never feels like he is trying to steal the spotlight or overdo it.  I'm not sure who provides 

As mentioned before, Jens Carlsson bears more than a passing resemblance to Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian.  This is both a good and bad thing for the band, as it immediately gives listeners a reference point, but may be distracting for some.  Personally, I don't think it's a problem, as Jens uses a grittier approach than what Hansi has used in years, and the band's overall sound is heavier and more aggressive than what BG has done of late.  In addition, not everything these guys do is of the level of "epic" that Hasni and his cohorts put out, so to some fans who tire of Blind Guardian's overly bombastic approach, this album's mild refrain from that tendency may be a welcome approach.  Since there's no indication anywhere that he doesn't provide them, I can only assume Jens handles the growled vocals as well, which is both impressive and shows his vocal ability and stamina being able to move back and forth between the two styles.

Ultimately, if you're a fan of Persuader's material thus far, you'll enjoy this album as much as what came before, perhaps even more due to the increase in songwriting ability and quality of material here.  If you're not, this may not convert you, unless you felt like the band's ability to write songs was somewhat limited, in which case, I would recommend giving this album a listen.  For those who think all power metal falls into the "flower metal" category, this album is one that should change that impression somewhat, because nothing here sounds overly happy or cheerful, and the overall tone of the album is darker and more foreboding than much of the power metal out there.  It's certainly heavier than a lot of other bands of the style.  A few more tweaks to the songwriting and even catchier melodies in the songs and these guys could be considered to be on the top shelf of the style alongside the aforementioned Blind Guardian, Rhapsody et al, Sonata Arctica, Primal Fear, etc.  In the meantime, I'd highly recommend this fantastic slab of driving metal.


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