Artist: Ashes Of Ares
Album Title: Emperors And Fools
Label: Rock Of Angels Records
Date of Release: 21 January 2022
Sometimes, just sometimes, you forget just how good an artist is. In a world where I am bombarded with new music on what seems like an hourly basis, it can take a little well-timed nudge to make you remember just how much you like a band or an individual musician. In this case, it had been a while since I had heard the unmistakeable sound of Matt Barlow’s voice. Ever since I discovered Iced Earth’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ around the turn of the Millennium, I have been a fan of Matt’s voice, wowing me in a live setting too, even more so than on disc. Leaving the band after the events of 9-11 to pursue a career in the police force must have been difficult but, with hindsight, a very wise move. The only unfortunate by-product though, for us fans, has been a distinct lack of Matt Barlow behind a microphone, doing what he does best.
Thankfully, we have Ashes Of Ares though and the nudge I required came with the invitation to hear their brand new album, the third of their career, entitled ‘Emperors And Fools’. Having enjoyed their sophomore effort, ‘Well Of Souls’ back in late 2018, I didn’t need an awful lot of persuading to check out their latest offering. As before, Ashes Of Ares is comprised of the core duo of Barlow alongside guitarist/bassist Freddie Vidales, who welcome back Van Williams (Nevermore, Ghost Ship Octavius) to carry out the drumming duties. On top of this, we’re treated to a handful or more of guest musicians who add their flavour to various tracks. For example, Jonah Weingarten composed the entirety of the cinematic instrumental opener ‘A City in Decay’. As instrumental intros go, it’s a pretty powerful affair, full of dark atmosphere and drama.
‘I Am The Night’ is, however, where the true Ashes Of Ares kicks in and it does so in impressive fashion. An urgent riff alongside intermittent drumming signals the beginning of a thrash-infused power metal attack, before Barlow’s magnificent voice enters and takes me back many years in the process. The melodies at play are really immediate, especially given the soaring vocals that accent the guitars. The pace is furious, the drumming typically thunderous and precise, and you get the feeling straight away that Vidales and Barlow are on top form here.
When coupled with the equally energetic and vital ‘Our Last Sunrise’, it is also clear that ‘Emperors And Fools’ doesn’t rock the boat in terms of output; if you were a fan of the band prior to this release, you’ll lap up what the guys produce here because the music is largely cut from the same cloth. It means that if you weren’t previously a fan, there’s not a great deal that’ll change your mind either. Personally, I do like this style of metal and it offers just about everything I could want. If I was to be a little hyper critical, I’d have wanted a slightly better production. It may be the quality of the promo mp3s, but it feels just a little muddy and lacking in clarity overall. Additionally, as good as the material is across the record, there are a few pronounced peaks and troughs, with a couple of songs suffering slightly in the quality stakes. An example would be the slower, more atmospheric ‘Primed’, which doesn’t set my world alight, even if it does improve with repeated spins.
As before, you also get a couple of quieter numbers, including the title track. This is a classic ‘lighters in the air’ or, to be more modern, ‘mobile phones in the air’ song, with acoustic intro, wailing poignant leads and quieter, more emotional singing from Barlow. To be honest, so good is his voice on this song, that he could have been singing ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’ and I’d not care.
I mentioned guest musicians and ‘The Iron Throne’ sees not one but two guest lead guitar solos. The first is from Sacred Reich’s Wiley Arnett, whilst the second comes from Charlie Mark. They add a nice extra element to what is essentially a muscular, stomping track, full of malevolence.
The undisputed highlight of this record, however, has to be the closing track, ‘Monster’s Lament’. It is an eleven-minute behemoth of a track, and it shows just what these musicians are capable of when they pull out all of the stops. The opening guitar notes are arguably heavier than anywhere else on the record, and they help to set a ponderous yet determined mid-pace that is quickly replaced by all-out pace and guitar histrionics. Williams lets loose the double pedal battery to great effect, and when Barlow finally enters, he is commanding in his deliberate delivery. Before long, he is joined by Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, another ex-Iced Earth alumni and current vocalist for K.K.’s Priest.
Given the extended length of this track, there is much more space for Vidales and Barlow to explore various tempos and soundscapes, including some passages that are quieter and more introspective, and others that are all-out bombast or attack. When juxtaposed, they really make a powerful impression, adding to the already impressive dynamics within the song. The only problem with ending ‘Emperors And Fools’ in this fashion is that it makes you wish a little more of the album could have been this good.
Overall, I have to declare ‘Emperors And Fools’ as a success. It isn’t the absolute home run that I would have loved to hear, and I do lose a little focus here and there as the album plays out. However, when you are presented with an album full of hard-hitting, crunchy riffs and the glorious voice of Matt Barlow, it would take an awful lot for the record not to be a success, certainly in my eyes. Put simply, if you enjoy thrash-infused power metal with plenty of grunt and nicely placed melody and the occasional prog dalliance, then you can never go too far wrong with Ashes Of Ares. ‘Emperors And Fools’ is the latest example to more than prove my point.
The Score of Much Metal: 82%
Check out my other 2022 reviews here:
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