Sunday, 29 June 2014

Knightmare "In Death's Shadow" Review

...This is going to be an odd review for me to do, as I was provided a copy of this album by the band directly (admittedly, by my own request: cheers for doing that, guys!). This does leave me kind of in an odd situation where I know that what I say is actually important to the band as they will read what I say, but, as a critic, I still have to be honest at the same time with my critiques. Since (at the time of writing this) I'm also about to take on a contributor role for a site which will require me (among other things) to do reviews for the site, this is technically my first professional review.

...So yeah, no pressure!

Anyway, with that disclaimer out of the way, let's start with the history of the band.

Knightmare are an Australian power/thrash band who have been active since 2005. From the looks of what I've seen of the band's history, the only consistent members of the band have been vocalist Mick Simpson (who is credited as MickoWar on this album: I'll stick to referring to him by his actual name in this review, as I don't especially want to be reminded of Manowar at the minute!) and guitarist Luke Besley (who is also part of the band Septerrus, which formed in 2008 and released their debut album, Tacit, in February 2013, and Seventh Sage, which formed in 2012 and...erm, that's all I know, to be honest!). Knightmare released their first EP in 2008, Unholy, which featured two musicians who, to my knowledge, have not done anything else since appearing on the EP (drummer Kade Moyes and guitarist James Jenkin) and bassist Blake Ford, now of death metal band The Ophidian Ascension (who formed in March 2009, released their first demo in 2010 and released their debut EP in August 2013). In between the release of that EP and this album (released in December 2012), the band had two musicians who did not make it onto the album: guitarist Rick Linguroski, now of the thrash metal band Demolition, which currently with one EP out (October 2007's Strike Force) and one album (2011's Kill Zone), and bassist Dean Gaudoin, who has a resumé of past bands, but nothing which he actually played on. On this album, the band's line up is completed with guitarist James (although he seems to prefer Jim) Munro (also part of Septerrus) and bassist Matt McConaghy (who, to my knowledge, has not done anything else since then). You might notice the lack of a drummer being mentioned in the complete line up for the album. I asked Jim about this in an email after spotting it while taking a quick read of the album's liner notes and he explained that, basically, the band's drummer at the time (I'm assuming it was Kade Moyes, but I might be wrong there) was injured at work and also left the band before recording was completed, so a combination of the guy's drumming and programmed drums (mostly the latter) were used to record the album. The band do currently have a drummer (Dave Allen), though!

So, with that out of the way, before I start looking at the album's artwork, I will add that the album's liner notes are actually pretty good! Growing up, one of the things I loved doing was looking at the liner notes to the albums I had (sometimes, when I didn't even want to listen to the album!) and it's great to see an artist actually put effort into the liner notes, as it tends to indicate that the artist actually wants the whole final product to be the best it can be instead of the artist just putting effort into the music and letting everything else be ignored. Since the liner notes technically only impact the presentation of the album to someone and not the actual music, I'll not critique that too much, but I will say that I'm not sure the colour choice was the best one overall: light purple (or pink, depending on how you look at it) and dark blue tend to clash horribly to my eyes, even when handled well. Still, it seems to work for the Horrors of Tzeentch, so maybe I'm unfairly complaining there!

And I'm pretty sure that reference went over a lot of people's heads...

Anyway, let's move on to the artwork for the album. I have to say, colour complaint which extends from the liner notes aside, I quite like it! It has the same kind of a feeling as a traditional power metal album, but it's got a darkness to it that shows this isn't power metal in the same vein as the European style of it, but a darker style that's more in line with US power metal (which, to be fair, is pretty much thrash metal with clean vocalists and fantasy concepts in the lyrics). I'm not entirely sure whether it's mostly based on a photo or is completely computer generated (a lot of it looks like it's from a photo, but with a lot of stuff added in to give the darker, more ominous vibe), but, if it's the latter, then I have to give the person who made the artwork credit for managing to make it look surprisingly realistic! If it's the former...well, credit to whoever took the picture and the people who added the effects afterwards, as the only effect that I feel doesn't work is the arm in the river. I can't exactly place why, but it just doesn't look entirely right to me...

Anyway, now I've looked at the artwork, let's dive into the music!

So, one of the first things that will strike you about this album is that all seven songs are somewhat long: the shortest is the opening track, "Cazador de Hombres" (...I don't actually know what that means), which is still nearly six and a half minutes long (as is the second shortest track on the album, "Apocalypse"). You could argue that this is Death Magnetic syndrome at work, but that would be horribly unfair...Metallica apparently took influence from Machine Head's The Blackening when they were working on that album, so it should actually be called The Blackening syndrome, if you want to be really accurate!

OK, being serious: this is not an album for listeners who lack patience, running for nearly an hour despite only being made up of seven tracks. Since I usually fall under this category (what can I say, I grew up mostly listening to folk, pop and punk for most of my childhood and early teenage years, genres which aren't exactly known for their long and epic songs, and I tend to avoid progressive metal in general unless it's in the vein of Queensryche and Crimson Glory!), I actually found it difficult to click with this album during my first few listens. So, if you are not fond of longer songs, you might want to give this a miss, as you'll probably find that this won't be to your taste.

The music weird as this might sound, I don't find it especially memorable, but I still really like it! One of the things that is the band's big strength is that their music flows brilliantly and is a joy to listen to...but one of their biggest issues is that very little of it really sticks with your once you've finished listening to it. It's very well played (and surprisingly unique sounding) thrash/power metal, with an understanding of the importance of having levels to your sound (so, not just playing the same kind of thing for fifty minutes and going "Yep, that's our album!", like a lot of bands seem to do...) to make the songs not wear themselves out, an almost progressive take on power/thrash metal that shows musicians who are writing far more intelligently than a lot of power and thrash metal musicians tend to (no offence intended to other power and thrash metal musicians reading this, of course: I just feel that Knightmare understands that progressive means more than just "technically demanding" and "long" and incorporates influence from progressive metal very nicely into their sound) and the performances are really enjoyable to listen to, but the problem is that very little of the album sticks in your mind when it isn't actually being listened to. Nothing on the album is bad by any measure, but, for an album connected to power metal, there is a noticeable lack of anything really catchy on it, which drags the album down for me quite a fair bit. If the band works on their ability to make their material more memorable in the future, I don't see why they couldn't go on to do great things in the future: the songwriting ability is definitely there to produce something amazing, it's just the ability to make their material memorable that I feel is letting them down at the minute. Most of the album was written or co-written by Besley, according to the liner notes (the only song he isn't credited as the solo writer of the music for a song is "Cazador de Hombres", where a co-writer credit is noted for someone with the last name Pertz (my research hasn't informed me of who that is: anyone who does know and wants to let me know, feel free to put it in the comments below!), and Mick Simpson is noted as the sole writer of the lyrics for "Granted Death" and co-writer of the lyrics to "Apocalypse": other than that, Besley is the only credited songwriter on the album), so I have to give the guy huge props for his hard work on the material!

Mick Simpson is a good vocalist, with a fairly strong voice and a fairly wide singing range. His performance on the album makes me think of Harry Conklin's on Jag Panzer's The Scourge Of The Light album, for some reason which I can't quite place. I also like his ability to swap to a somewhat growled lower range in the backing vocals: it adds something interesting to the band's sound which I feel gives them a bit of an edge. I wouldn't encourage him to make these more prominent in the band's sound, though, as I think the band's sound is fine as it is. The thing that surprises me is that Simpson has a somewhat small impact on the album as a whole: despite his role as the vocalist in the band, he feels somewhat underused across the album, with the focus mostly going on the music behind him. While this can work for some bands (Dream Theater springs to mind), I feel that it doesn't completely work here, as Simpson's presence feels small even on the band's shortest songs. I don't think this is a huge issue overall, but it's enough of one for me to feel that it will impact the album for people who aren't especially patient when it comes to longer songs.

I have to give a lot of credit to Munro and Besley for their guitar playing on this album as well. While I will say that it still seems to fall within the boundaries of thrash metal in general, there is a more melodic touch across the album in their playing that would easily justify connecting the band to the power metal scene. I can't really place which bands I am reminded of, but I wouldn't be surprised if the members were influenced by bands like Forbidden, Heathen and ...And Justice For All by Metallica (and maybe a hint of The Blackening by Machine Head and some Nevermore?) for the more progressive approach to their sound and combined that with influence from US power metal bands like Jag Panzer and Iced Earth and threw in a tiny bit of influence from death metal circles (although I can't think of any specific vocalist who would match Simpson's growls: I'm not a big fan of extreme metal in general...) for flavour. To a limited extent, I'm also reminded of Holy Grail's somewhat varied take on traditional heavy metal, for some reason. Besley also plays the cello on this album, which, I have to be honest, is not an instrument I'd have expected to hear on this album. Unfortunately, I have little reference on how a cello sounds when played well and I managed to miss it when I was listening to the album, so I'm going to have to pass on commenting on that. Sorry, dude, no offence intended!

McConaghy's bass is kind of just...there. On low volumes, it's nigh on impossible to hear it. Some will say that's a good thing because it encourages you to put the volume up louder and enjoy the music more, but I tend to find that, if you have to put the volume up to hear something properly, you can risk damaging your ears due to everything else being too loud, ESPECIALLY if the mastering is too loud. This has been a pet peeve of mine for a good while, though, so some people will probably be fine with how quiet the bass is and want to turn it up! For me, though...I don't know, I'd kind of like the hear the bass in stuff without needing to have to turn the volume up particularly loud. I guess I just kind of prefer bass heavy mixes, go figure...

I don't think I can really critique the drumming especially well, due to them mostly being programmed drums. What I will say is that I feel the band suffers a little bit from occasionally overusing double bass drumming. They're not as bad with it as some bands are and the drumming is generally varied enough to give it a free pass, though, so I'd say that's a bit of a minor complaint overall.

Moving on to the production of the album, I have to say that, while it might be a tiny bit on the loud side with the mastering, the mixing (if you take my bass complaint out of the equation) is pretty good and the actual production is just about perfect: it sounds pretty clear, but not in the sort of way that I see a lot of people objecting to. It's not the super clean style employed by, say, Killswitch Engage and Trivium (I'm reaching for metalcore bands because, well, most metalcore bands tend to have VERY clean production. Not that I personally have a huge problem with that: I can enjoy metalcore, when I'm in the right mood for it...), but it's definitely making the best of modern recording technology to get a very clear sound on the album. I doubt this will win over the people who like their music to sound like it was recorded in a garage in one take (although I feel I should point out that you COULD feasibly record a professional sounding final album in your garage, if you just set things up properly and soundproof your garage to prevent other sounds from leaking into it...), but, for most people, I don't see the production on this album being a huge issue. Huge praise to Luke Besley for his production work and props to Ermin for the mixing of the album and Plec for the mastering of the album, as, in spite of my complaints, you still all did a great job!

Before I move on to provide my final thoughts, a small nitpick involving the track listing on the album: I think the band might have missed a trick by putting "Cazador de Hombres" as the opening track on the album over "Granted Death". I just feel that the most atmospheric opening of that track might have been a better way to open the album than the more thrash influenced rush of "Cazador de Hombres". I just think it might have been better placed somewhere else on the album, as "Granted Death" feels to me like it could have opened the album just as well, if not better, than "Cazador de Hombres" did.

So, final thoughts? Well, I think the band have a lot of potential, but they have to tighten up their songwriting a bit before I think they will start to gain greater recognition around the world. Most of what they need to do is not anything especially drastic, though: just focus on making the material a bit more memorable overall, try to better integrate Simpson's vocals into it and maybe be willing to throw in a few more ideas that are a bit further out of the box for the style of music they are playing. While I feel the production is a slight weakness due to the somewhat quiet mixing of the bass and the mastering being a bit on the loud side, I can't really say either of them are crippling issues and, for the most part, could probably be fairly dismissed as me complaining about it just not matching my personal taste in production. I think that the band have the potential to go far, so, despite my rating probably not being high enough to justify saying this, I would definitely suggest keeping an eye on this band, as I have a feeling they could go on to produce something amazing in the future!

Final Rating: 7 Out Of 10

A brilliantly written and rather unique sounding, if not especially memorable, power/thrash album. If you're into power/thrash metal with a somewhat progressive lean to it, this is definitely worth checking out. For people who aren't interested in that kind of thing, though, you might want to give this a miss, as this probably won't be your kind of thing.

Personal Favourite Tracks: "Cazador de Hombres" and "Knightmare"

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