Pharaoh – Bury the Light (6 March 2012, Cruz del Sur Music)
Good evening, Readers. How’s it going? I’d like to take a quick poll, if you don’t mind. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “power metal”? Is your first impulse to run away screaming? It wouldn’t surprise me much if that were the case, because that would be the reaction of many people — including myself, sometimes.
Why is that? Well, because somewhere along the line power metal got its name blemished pretty badly in the eyes of most listeners. Somehow the genre got associated with bands who, when they heard “Run to the Hills” for the first time, fell in love with the lightning-speed galloping part towards the end, but thought the song would be better if they had cut out all the stuff that builds the tension up to that point, and creates dynamic contrast, and holds the listener’s attention. Bands whose favorite album of all time is Rising Force, but they never realized that their turntable was switched to 78 RPM instead of 33-1/3.
It’s no wonder most people turn their noses up at the thought of this genre, when its most visible representatives are a bunch of over-the-top, ultra-cheeserrific fuckwads whose primary goal seems to be to constantly outdo themselves in terms of speed and wankery, much more than giving any thought to making good quality music.
Of course, this stereotype didn’t just spring into existence overnight; there have been bands that have incorporated cheesy schtick into their repetoires (whether intentionally or not) for decades. It’s almost as if everyone had forgotten it was possible to put together a group of talented musicians and play music that strikes a balance between heavy and powerful but also emotional and melodic; and to tackle lyrical territory that is epic and grand but not corny and overblown. Almost.
A certain group of Philadelphian gentlemen (who, by the way, come from the eastern side of my home state – just a few hundred miles from here) who call themselves Pharaoh haven’t forgotten. And just one listen to their newest album (their fourth full-length, and fifth release overall, dating back nearly ten years) Bury the Light, which is on Cruz del Sur and was released just last week in North America, is all it will take to ensure you don’t forget, either.
From the very beginning of opening track “Leave Me Here to Dream,” the way the bass jumps in and seizes control, leading the charge with guitars and drums in tow, makes it clear that you’re in for something pretty awesome and unique. Of course, the guitars do rise to prominence before long — it is a very guitar-oriented genre after all — and they have a great tone and are played very skillfully throughout the whole record, but at no point do they come across as showboaty or overbearing. Further, these opening moments are but one instance of many throughout all of the songs here, where the bass steps out to center stage and dominates a certain passage, or dazzles with an occasional fill or flourish.
Then, there are the vocals. Now here is something else that is quite often a point of contention for those who shy away from the power genre, and again it is based on some bad examples found in bands who also fall under the umbrella of this style of metal. Too often, a band’s singer seems to get into a competition with the guitarist to see whose part can be more flamboyant and extravagant. And again, you won’t find any of that here.
Vocalist Tim Aymar has a certain raw quality to his voice, a touch of gruffness that lends an air of authenticity, or perhaps one might say, some metal cred. At the same time, though, he’s got quite an impressive range, and can really put some lung power behind the notes at either the low or high end of it. Imagine if Lemmy and Geoff Tate‘s DNA somehow got combined. Yeah, every bit as incredible as you’re imagining. The one song that really jumps out at me in terms of the vocal delivery would have to be “Castles in the Sky” – the melody here jumps all over the place, and he really nails every single note pretty impressively.
Finally, one of the biggest complaints many people have about power metal (or numerous other genres like epic, fantasy, symphonic, gothic, and frequently even traditional heavy metal) is the lyrics – they can be so over-the-top with imagery and full of pomposity, taking themselves serious to the point of utter ridiculousness. Personally, I really hate this — I am truly not into lyrics, generally, and don’t usually care if they are even present or not. But I do tend to notice if they are especially clever or especially awful. And honestly, it’s the second kind that catch my ears far more often.
Bury the Light does deal in some standard fare like epic battles and conquering enemies and that sort of thing. However, at no point did I get that cringing feeling like when a rhyme is either horribly obvious or totally forced, or that head-shaking-in-disgust moment when a line is just way too trite or goofy (aka “Manowar-isms”). No, the writing and storytelling seems pretty solid and well-done here. Again, I am not by any means a “lyrics guy” so I don’t sit around reading or analyzing the words to songs, but there was one in particular that really struck a chord with me. “Graveyard of Empires” also centers on going out to battle, at least on its surface, but after a couple of listens it feels more like a meditation on aging and mortality, and quite a stirring one at that. If I’m way off-base here, I don’t care — I like the song and I like my interpretation of it, and it makes sense inside my head.
Anyway, as I have mentioned throughout this review, this is a very solidly constructed piece of art, and all of the elements here are far more appealing than what one typically imagines power metal sounds like. However, it’s one thing to explain all that to you, but a different thing entirely to actually convince you. Fortunately, Cruz del Sur has been kind enough to place the album on their Bandcamp page so you can hear it for yourself!
Once you’ve heard it, and you decide you’d like to own a copy, you might be glad to know you can have a chance to get it for free! Cruz del Sur, in cooperation with Clawhammer PR and Teeth of the Divine are giving away three copies of the CD, and all you have to do is fill out an entry form at this site! NOTE: the contest is open until March 19th.
If you don’t win, or you don’t want to take a chance, you can always buy the CD here.
The album is also available to purchase as a digital download or on LP (and on CD for you Europeans) on the label’s Bandcamp page.