Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Black Fate - Between Visions & Lies (2014)

I like a challenging, or even frustrating listen once in a while.  I like for a release to give me something other than what I was expecting, even if it's not what I wanted.  We need to be challenged in life from time to time, or we don't grow and learn from our own insular, and often myopic perspectives.  To be able to glean something new from something you thought you already knew is a sign of maturity.  I can safely say that Black Fate's "Between Visions & Lies" was not what I was expecting, or even hoping for.

Truth be told, I was only mildly excited for this release.  Ulterium Records hasn't really let me down yet, though a couple releases haven't quite met expectations (I'm looking at you, Ivory Moon and End of September).  For that reason, even with a band like Black Fate, who I had not heard of, prior to seeing "coming soon" posts on the Ulterium Records Facebook page, I had to be at least a little excited, if not just intrigued.  After all, this is the label that brought us Harmony's "Chapter II: The Aftermath" (one of my favorite power metal albums EVER), Theocracy, and a slew of other great bands and releases over the last several years.  That said, Black Fate challenged me more than I wanted, but it's my own fault: sometimes I get in my own way a bit too much.  Having only heard the teaser stuff, I was expecting a middle-of-the-road metal album with hard rock influence, some power metal influence, and perhaps a hint of prog metal for good measure.  What I got was nothing like that.

Because I've not heard any Black Fate material prior to this, their 4th album, I have no reference as to the sound or quality of their earlier albums.  If they're anything like this, however, I'd describe them as vaguely Savatage-inspired prog/power metal with a penchant for vocal harmonies.  The first few spins of the album were uneventful, because I thought maybe it was going to be faster, perhaps a touch heavier, and was expecting the vocals to be a bit more "soaring" than what Vasilis brings to the table.  Truth be told, I had already made my mind up as to what the album was likely going to sound like, so when it didn't grab me right away, I kind of dismissed it as perhaps less than what it was.  I count that as a mistake, however, because after about 10 or 12 listens, something started to click with me, and I started to hear this album for what it actually was: a solid, semi-progressive metal album with some power metal stylings injected in, and a fair bit of personality under the hood.

Musically speaking, this is solid stuff.  Guitars, provided by Gus Drax (briefly a part of metal legends Paradox) are driving and interesting.  He provides a riff-oriented style that is melodic enough without losing its edge, but not so intent on "chugging" that variety is sacrificed.  "Lines In the Sand" is a good example where it's not all bar chords and chugging.  It's a combination of that and alternate chording, providing a nice balance between an aggressive, heavy feel, and a melodic base that keeps the songs listenable beneath the surface.  There are a few nice touches here and there, like a couple pinch harmonics, some good solo work that isn't too flashy and retains tunefulness.  Bass guitar is provided by Vasilis Liakos.  His work isn't overly audible in the mix, but it's present and serves more as a driving force underneath the guitar to help propel the sound.  What I'm hearing sounds good, though it's nothing groundbreaking.  Still, it sounds good alongside the guitar work.  Drumming by Nikos Tsintzilonis is quite good, with a good sense of when to speed up and go nuts, and when to slow down and let the song breathe.  Very seldom does Nikos go full-bore with double-bass and fast rhythms, however, because the material's more medium-pace doesn't call for that much.  Instead, he keeps time, injects the occasional fill, and creates interest in subtle ways.  He does a fine job matching the material's feel and level of aggression well.

Vocalist Vasilis Georgiou is not what I was expecting.  Generally, with Ulterium bands fronted by a man, you get a fairly powerful male voice with highs, occasional lows, and a fair sense of drama.  Not that I was expecting a clone of any of the label's other vocalists, but for some reason, Vasilis' voice just struck me funny after listening to the record the first time.  It took me a bit to warm up to his voice for some strange reason.  He's a talented singer with a sense of dynamics, he makes good use of vibrato here and there, has a good tone, and uses inflection in places where it fits.  I'm not sure what my hang-up was initially, but I like what he's bringing to the table here, even if he doesn't have the presence of some of his label-mates.

My biggest issue with the album is that, while the songs are all well-constructed, and reasonably memorable, they still took a long time to take hold for me.  Yes, part of this may be my issue, but still, I'm looking for something a touch more immediate in a band of this type.  I'd prefer the band pull a bit of a "bait and switch" and give me a meaty, anthemic opening song to get my attention, and then weave the more complex songs in as the album goes along to help solidify what's going on.  It all sounds good while it's playing, but other than the chorus of "Call of the Wild", or bits of "Lines in the Sand", I'm not humming these songs after listening to them.  When I play the album 3 or 4 times in a row, I expect to have some of the material stuck in my head several hours afterward.  I'm not getting that here, and it speaks somewhat to the material itself.  It's not vanilla, by any means, but it's not something that has stuck with me at all.

Mileage on a release like this is going to vary.  If you're a big fan of the semi-progressive latter Savatage material, you'll probably get a big kick out of this record.  At the very least, you'll appreciate the musicianship at work, like I did.  If you prefer your progressive metal a bit more grand, you'll find this lacking.  Either way, I would encourage the members of Black Fate to tighten up their songwriting so that the next album has a stronger batch of material with more of an immediacy to it.  That will help the songs grab hold much faster, and get ingrained in the listener's consciousness that much more effectively.  As it stands, they've crafted a solid, highly listenable, and enjoyable release that just misses the mark in the songwriting department.  I'll tentatively recommend this to prog metal diehards who have to have everything in the genre, or Ulterium Records devotees like myself who have enjoyed everything the label has done thus far.


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