Move your skinny asses over, Enforcer, there’s a new sheriff in Retro City and the name is really shitty. I know a pussy cat name like Alpha Tiger won’t inspire much faith amongst the angry metal masses, but trust me, the music more than makes up for the cheese-tastic moniker (which belongs on a third-rate Japanese video game where you brawl through a zoo and up the food chain). This is unapologetically old school, traditional metal taking its cues from early 80s American acts like Agent Steel, Armored Saint, John Arch era-Fates Warning, Sacred Oath and Crimson Glory. There’s some NWOBHM in the sound too, but that takes a distant backseat to elements of South American power metal like Viper and Hibria. While the retro rock on Enforcer‘s latest opus left me nonplussed, the sophomore outing by these German rockers sounds fresh and energetic with tons of air-raidy vocals and savory, metal-as-hell noodling alongside bombastic soloing. They totally nail the mood and feel of the early 80s American metal sound, to the point where its impossible for me to listen without picturing my high school era bedroom where all the metal magic happened (oh Doro, only you understand me). This has more balls than other retro/classic bands like White Wizzard and Steelwing and much less of a slavish Maiden fixation. Maybe that’s why its hitting home so damn hard.
Lead-off “The Alliance” is loaded with beefy, muscular riffing like classic Armored Saint and the outstandingly vintage vocals of Stephan Dietrich really blow the roof and doors off. He channels the spirits of John Arch, Midnight (Crimson Glory), Lizzy Borden (same) and Andre Matos (Viper/Angra) as he soars high above the riffature like an iron eagle (of steel). The song screams 1985 and reminds me of long forgotten acts like Savage Grace who tried to fuse traditional metal with early speed metal (do yourself a favor and track down their After the Fall From Grace album). Better still is “From Outer Space,” which is fast, frenzied and loaded with aggressive riffing, whammy dives and vocals that just keep getting higher and higher until even Testiclees the Mighty begs for mercy. As soon as I heard the excellent, glass-shattering chorus, I was reminded of Viper‘s criminally underrated Theatre of Fate album and the way those songs were so irresistibly catchy and loaded with stratospheric vocal hooks.
“Waiting for a Sign” is mid-tempo and more restrained, but no less enjoyable since its rich in vocal melodies, crisp guitar harmonies and a satisfyingly dramatic, memorable chorus. The title track borrows a page from Riot’s immortal Thundersteel material and slays with in-your-face riffing, thunderous drums and commanding vocals. The chorus hits hard and stays with you for days. Speaking of well done choruses, “Along the Rising Sun” boasts another winner. It’s such a basic song, but so catchy, it makes simplicity a real virtue and provides air guitar worthy riffs throughout.
The back half of Beneath the Surface is a departure from the quick strike, super accessible fare on the front half, and focuses on longer, more complex material where the band shows their technical chops. While not as instant, after a few listens, the deeper stuff really opens up and becomes intriguingly solid and engaging. “Rain” is very quick, has oodles of wild guitar solos and Dietrich’s vocals again remind of Andre Matos’s work in Viper. The chorus is great and the playing is top-notch throughout. “Crescent Moon” bears strong similarities to the material on Fates Warning‘s Awaken the Guardian and Dietrich’s vocal gymnastics are very John Arch-like and therefore, awesome (especially around the 2:50 mark).
While “Eden Lies in Ruin,” seemed a bit directionless on the first few spins, it grew and grew on me. I really like the similarities to ancient Queensryche and to Lethal‘s classic Programmed opus and it’s awash with classy guitar work and excellent vox. The only dud is closer “We Came From the Gutter,” which feels like filler and suffers from an awkward, cheesy chorus.
The big draw here are the vocals by Dietrich. Whether he’s in John Arch or Andre Matos mode, he tears it up on every damn song. I know the whole high-pitched vocalist thing can get tired quickly, but the man has real talent and he isn’t screaming. His voice is very pure and clear and man, he can get up there into the Torsion Zone! When you pair his pipes with the impressive, frequently catchy axe-work by Alexander Backasch and Peter Langforth and some quality writing, really good things happen. Not to be overlooked, Dirk Frei slaps a mean bass and his little rumbles and fills add a lot to the melodic mayhem. Last things last, the production is perfectly stuck in the early 80s and sounds exactly like the shit I was spinning on vinyl and cassette back in high school.
Beneath the Surface is a big surprise and a highly addictive, throwback rocker with above average writing. I’m really digging this, despite suffering from terminal retro fatigue syndrome. I’m not cured (you know, because its terminal), but I’m feeling a whole lot better. Check this thing out ASAP. Thundercats HO!!!!