YOU! I demand your attention!
So began Judicator’s 2015 album, At the Expense of Humanity. An intensely personal power metal concept album that chronicled the final days of the brother of vocalist John Yelland as he lost his battle with cancer, the record brought a delicate, unique touch to a stagnant style by subverting genre tropes into a distinctly gut-wrenching experience, while simultaneously representing the genre at its most rhythmically and melodically engaging. This seemingly impossible balancing act was executed to perfection, making it one of my favorite power metal releases of the past decade – and one that’s especially tricky to follow up. Enter The Last Emperor, the fourth LP from these Arizonans that sees them returning to the historically based subject matter of their first two albums. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t quite match the standard set by its predecessor, but it’s a standout power metal release on its own merits nonetheless.
Before diving in, let’s make one thing clear to newcomers to this band: Judicator worships Blind Guardian, and has been doing so since vocalist John Yelland and guitarist Tony Cordisco decided to form a band after meeting at a BG concert in 2012. Over the course of four albums, the band has displayed a steadfast dedication to carrying on the German pioneers’ legacy, splicing hooky, thrashing power metal with mountainous vocal harmonies while simultaneously carving their own melodic niche. Perhaps nowhere else in Judicator‘s discography is the band’s melodic signature more well-defined than on The Last Emperor; Yelland’s note progressions regularly leap octave gaps to create a kind of quirky melodicism that’s grandiose and charming without dipping too heavily into the telltale power-cheese vat. The strong hooks, along with a heightened sense of rhythmic urgency, make The Last Emperor the most immediately grabbing entry in the Judicator canon thus far.
The shot of immediacy that the rhythm section injects into this particular outing practically never ceases; the drum performances, when isolated, could trick most into believing that The Last Emperor is a straight thrash release, and the frantic, persistent tremolo lines recall a more melodically inventive DragonForce. Yet while the tempos are almost universally locked into high gear, the beats-per-minute count is strangely static. Tracks like the Rage-esque “Raining Gold” are pulse quickening in their aggression, but when I take a step back to look at the record as a complete package, it sort of blends into the following few tracks because of their nearly identical pace. No track falls short of greatness, and each brings something unique to the table melodically, but the uniform tempos partially rob the compositions of their individuality.
Rhythmic monotony may be a persistent issue, but in The Last Emperor’s best moments – of which there are many – this concern melts away. “It Falls to Jerusalem” in particular is one of Judicator’s greatest pieces to date, with a ceaselessly building series of riffs and vocal hooks that reflects the genre at its most grippingly dramatic. Elsewhere, “Take Up Your Cross,” the record’s sole mid-paced entry, is a unique addition in that it sports an excellent, lengthy chorus seemingly comprised of two shorter refrains, while “Spiritual Treason” is a prime mid-album show stopper that features an exhilarating guest spot from Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kürsch. Each track is bolstered by Yelland’s vividly descriptive lyrics chronicling various events of The Crusades, with one of the most notable being Godfrey of Bouillon’s battle with a bear recounted in “Nothing but Blood.” The entire package is further enhanced by Judicator‘s best tones and most dynamic mix to date, which restrains the rhythm guitar volume to allow the skins to deliver a satisfying impact with each hit.
The physical edition of the record concludes with a re-recording of the title cut from Judicator’s 2012 debut King of Rome1. While the track is a solid power metal number, it contrasts with the relatively innovative The Last Emperor so strongly as to effectively put into perspective how much this band has accomplished in six years, vaulting from their unpolished beginnings into a league that places them among the best modern power metal bands in the American scene. The Last Emperor isn’t Judicator’s best effort, but it comes in at a strong second place, proving that At The Expense of Humanity was no mere fluke. Though not flawless, this is surely one of the best power metal albums one is likely to hear this year.
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 255 kbps mp3
Websites: judicatormetal.com | judicatormetal.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/judicatormetal
Releases Worldwide: March 30th, 2018