Artist: Demons & Wizards
Album Title: III
Label: Century Media Records
Date of Release: 21 February 2020
For many, the collaboration between Iced Earth’s founder/guitarist Jon Schaffer and Blind Guardian’s unique vocalist, Hansi Kursch is the stuff of fantasy and legend. On the one hand, you have the guy that is responsible for the vast majority of Iced Earth’s output and creator of some of the best riffs in power metal over the past three or four decades. On the other, you have the immediately recognisable and incredibly unique voice that has been around for a similar length of time, bringing the stories of Blind Guardian to life as only he could. So, a meeting of the two could only be magical couldn’t it?
I own both previous releases under the Demons & Wizards moniker, namely 2000’s self-titled debut and the 2005 follow-up, ‘Touched By The Crimson King’. Looking objectively, I’m happy to declare that the debut is the stronger of the two – well, it’s definitely the one to which I gravitate most frequently. However, I will also declare at this juncture that I am a bigger fan of both Iced Earth and Blind Guardian than I am of Demons & Wizards. Up until now, if I’m 100% honest with you, I find that the idea of Demons & Wizards has proved to be better than the actual final product.
Despite this admission on my part, I was still excited to hear ‘III’, to see if my mind could be changed once and for all.
Part of the excitement I felt about ‘III’ was, like many others, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever see or hear it. After 2005, the Demons & Wizards brand, if I can call it that, went very quiet. There was never any talk of a disbandment or anything, but year after year, things seemed to get in the way of Kursch and Schaffer being able to pull a new record together. But, happily, after a 15-year hiatus, the somewhat unimaginatively-titled ‘III’ is upon us.
It comes with a strong supporting cast too because Kursch and Schaffer, who incidentally handles most of the guitar duties, some bass, mandolin and backing vocals, are joined by some notable allies. Brent Smedley provides the drums, Jake Dreyer and Jim Morris contribute guitars, the remaining bass is delivered by Ruben Drake and there’s a cast of backing vocalists including the PA’dam Chamber Choir.
Naturally, as with the last two records, ‘III’ is a pretty epic release, both in musical stature and in sheer size. Eleven songs stretch to well over an hour of music, full of power, atmosphere, texture and storytelling as only such a pairing could achieve.
‘Diabolic’ kicks off the album and it does so in a fashion that is anything but diabolic. The opening is sinister and malevolent, yet melodic. Then in blasts those famous metronomic staccato riffs and Kursch’s captivating voice. The song skips along with a gallop in places, whilst at others, it descends into minimalist territory to allow Kursch’s voice to take centre stage. Then there’s the chorus, which is catchy as hell, meaning that you’re singing it long after the record ends. The choirs and layers of vocals add depth and that aforementioned atmosphere as well as a sense of the theatric.
‘III’ is off to a cracking start and there are plenty of other high points to hear across the album. For example, ‘Invincible’ is a slow-burner with a surprising amount of groove, demonstrating a more playful side of Schaffer, away from his normal machine-gun riffing. Another personal favourite has to be ‘Wolves In Winter’ because of the juxtaposition between the metronomic verses that then give way to some beautiful melodies within the chorus, accentuated by some of Kursch’s best singing on the record as far as I’m concerned. It really catches me and begs for repeated listens.
The nine-minute composition, ‘Timeless Spirit’ is another high point too. It sees Schaffer breaking out the acoustic guitar to create a dark, foreboding opening half, before the song explodes in the second act to deliver some great extended lead guitar work, full of melody, touch and feel. The riffs in the latter stages are chunky and the choir comes into its own, led by the master of all conductors, Mr Hansi Kursch.
Unfortunately, I cannot escape the truth that I get a little lost and underwhelmed at times when listening to ‘III’. I’m really not much of a fan of ‘Midas Disease’ which is imbued with a sleazy feel, more AC/DC and Mötley Crüe with heavier guitars to be honest. And, whilst not bad, I don’t warm to tracks like ‘New Dawn’ or ‘Split’ as much as I want to. It is these mid-late stages of the album that stall the momentum built up at the beginning, which is disappointing but not altogether a surprise for me based on my thoughts of the first two albums.
Nevertheless, ‘Universal Truth’ is a very nice track that delivers some strong riffs and plenty in the way of melody, whilst closer, ‘Children Of Cain’ is a classic epic track from the pen of Jon Schaffer; it begins in quiet, brooding fashion but you can sense that it is just building up to something more intense. As such, when the riffs burst forth on the cue of Kursch’s spinetingling scream, you’re ready for the blast of power, which then, a little surprisingly, ease off again as the song follows a quieter, more acoustic path, never to return to the heavier climes. I like it though and it ends ‘III’ on a deserved high.
I know we’ve waited one-and-a-half decades for a new Demons & Wizards album but frankly, it would have been a lot stronger had it have been trimmed down somewhat. When Kursch and Schaffer are on fire, they produce real magic together and ‘III’ shows this without question. Take away three or four of the lesser tracks and we could have had with ‘III’, for the first time, a near-perfect and consistent Demons & Wizards album. As it is, it’s very good, excellent in places, but ever so slightly less compelling at other times.
The Score of Much Metal: 83%
Check out my reviews from 2020 right here:
Vredehammer – Viperous
H.E.A.T – H.E.A.T II
Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void
Into The Open – Destination Eternity
Lunarsea – Earthling/Terrestre
Pure Wrath – The Forlorn Soldier EP
Sylosis – Cycle of Suffering
Sepultura – Quadra
Dyscordia – Delete / Rewrite
Godthrymm – Reflections
On Thorns I Lay – Threnos
God Dethroned – Illuminati
Fragment Soul – A Soul Inhabiting Two Bodies
Mariana Semkina – Sleepwalking
Mini Album Reviews: Moloken, The Driftwood Sign & Midnight
Serenity – The Last Knight
Ihsahn – Telemark EP
Temperance – Viridian
Blasphemer – The Sixth Hour
Deathwhite – Grave Image
Marko Hietala – Pyre Of The Black Heart
SWMM – Trail Of The Fallen
Into Pandemonium – Darkest Rise EP
Bonded – Rest In Violence
Serious Black – Suite 226
Darktribe – Voici L’Homme
Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga
A Life Divided – Echoes
Thoughts Factory – Elements
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: