When I was a wee swordbearer in the northern taiga with fewer years under my belt and not enough Jørn Lande in my life, I lived on a metal diet comprised almost solely of Freedom Call, Power Quest, Dark Moor, and their ilk. I was absolutely convinced that other than Kamelot, there was really nothing coming out of the US that could interest me. Then, a couple years later, I was slapped silly by Pharaoh, Nevermore, and Twisted Tower Dire. All offer different sounds, but all are US bands with elements of power metal that both wrenched away from the keyboards (which I’d become so dependent upon) and blended my addiction for melody with a measure of aggression and/or stoicism that offered its own attraction. True, USPM has still been slow to grow on me, since I require considerable melody and prefer big choruses, but I have developed an appreciation for nearly all facets of the power/speed realm since those early days.
This year I was introduced to San Francisco’s Ancient Empire via its 2016 release, Otherworld, and barely had time to arrive at a full appreciation for that album before I caught wind of the band’s impending drop of The Tower. I scrambled to acquire a copy of this album in time for year-end coverage, and am pleased to say that it met the considerable expectations set by Otherworld. Ancient Empire offers a stripped-down, fast-paced, riff-propelled variety of alternate history- and science-fiction concerned power metal carried by the accomplished gravelly singing of Joe Liszt (Shadowkiller, Hellhound), who in fact also accomplishes all of the instrumental recording other than percussion. The project’s style can be compared favorably with Twisted Tower Dire, mid/late Iron Maiden, Scanner, Rocka Rollas, and most of the band member’s other projects.
Much like its predecessor, The Tower succeeds through musical talent and force of will in a myriad of ways. Lyrically, this album is a quasi-conceptual, back-and-forth romp through human history that affords lyricist Rich Pelletier (also of Hellhound) an opportunity to place on display some of the more engrossing lyricism that I’ve ever heard in the genre. Despite offering big chorus hooks and some subtly excellent vocal layering, the band maintains its strong trad/speed metal identity by supplying driving drum and rhythm work while relying heavily on harmonized guitar leads and an abundance of consummate riffing. Dynamic and tempo variation is executed with a level of restraint and skill rarely seen in this style of metal on songs like “In the Land of the Damned” and the walloping “The Battle of Stirling Bridge.”
In no time flat, Ancient Empire has crested the wave of American heavy and power metal acts to crash with thunderous effect upon my senses. It’s not so much that this studio project does metal truly different (though see my comments on lyrics) than its contemporaries as it does them consistently better. I’ll be honest: I still prefer Otherworld by a margin, as I find it more generally memorable (also has more spaceships and lasers), but The Tower is no poorer an introduction point to the group’s work. Don’t let this one get lost in the ether!
Tracks to check out: “The Tower,” “View from Up Here,” “The Battle of Stirling Bridge,” and “Darker Side of Midnight”