Besides the first halves of their names, the three bands reviewed herein are also bound by a triad of other likenesses: all venture on the dark side of power metal, flirt with wild outer space themes on these latest albums, and have annoyingly throwaway intros. (I’ve wanted a moratorium on the latter for years now; ol’ Vince Neilstein nailed it pretty well here.) Perhaps Iron Maiden‘s cosmic exploration encouraged these recent turns, and in some cases it works, but can really grow tiresome.
Iron Fire has a hit-and-miss history with Mind over Metal. While I liked most of To the Grave, it was fraught with voiceovers which hampered my listening. Then Metalmorphosized just underimpressed, despite their strong efforts. Their biggest misstep involves album and song length; the whole Damned ride inches past an hour total, with the title track clocking in at ten minutes, their longest song to date. I cannot overstate how this band should shoot for half that… tops. And founding frontman Martin Steene needs an editor, because his strident vocals are all over the place, particularly in songs like “Enter Oblivion OJ-666″ (initially impressive, then kinda funny, and finally just murders me in the end… weird). Generally speaking, stick with the first half and songs whose titles are dangerously close to classic Metal albums like “Slaughter of Souls” and “Leviathan”. Rating: 3/5
The one thing Iron Fire has on Voyage of the Damned is thematic consistency. Iron Savior starts spacey with the near-eponymous track “The Savior” — and The Landing is purportedly part of a grander picture — but you barely recognize a story present. Details are so non-specific, you could inject the lyrics anywhere; it makes me glad I haven’t been following along all this time. I perked up somewhat with “March of Doom” (cuz when done right, doom heals all wounds) but damn, it mostly crumbles to bits after this. Tracks like “Heavy Metal Never Dies” and “R.U. Ready” are such pandering tripe—counterproductive toward self-empowerment, devoid of substance, shamelessly plumbing the past. Surprisingly, the last thing to grab my attention was “Faster than All” with its underlying Morricone-esque melody, distinct for its Western feel, yet still oddly misplaced. Maybe keeping listeners off-guard is the way to go, because otherwise this is Blind Guardian lite, without the character development. Rating: 3/5
Belgium’s Iron Mask end these proceedings on a promising note. If you’re a fan of “Ripper” Owens-era Iced Earth, but always wished (like me) that the vocals were reined in a bit, Black as Death is an album worth your time. Discounting their 1:43 intro, the title track erupts into shrouding darkness with an unexpectedly catchy chorus. Skip the obvious single “Broken Hero” and head to “Feel the Fire” where their inspired neoclassical harmonies begin to blaze, and the clean pipes of Mark Boals ignite the very air itself. However, the middle gets messy: “Genghis Khan” is well-meaning (including traditional instruments) but drab overall; “God Punishes, I Kill” seems misguided and overlong; “Rebel Kid” is a yawnfest. The D-word returns to save us again with “Blizzard of Doom”, which retells the story Alive with primal ferocity—a personal favorite. Both it and “Nosferatu” have a mighty Baroque backbone, and the vampire’s tale breaks out the most brutal vocals on Black as Death. Iron Mask hides greatness behind a thin veil that I hope is completely lifted in the future, so we may bear witness to shameless majesty. Rating: 3.5/5