Steel Druhm is in his iron glory. After being sidelined from reviewing for several weeks by the various demands of life, I get to come back strong with two bands themselves attempting comebacks after long absences. Jag Panzer may have been idle for 6 years, but Sweden’s Nocturnal Rites went radio silent for an entire decade. Back when I was a carefree graduate student, the band was a fairly typical sword and sorcery themed Euro-power outfit. Despite an artery clogging cheese quotient, the sheer infectious strength of albums like Tales of Mystery and Imagination and The Sacred Talisman all but forced you to get your Balrogs to the wall. Everything changed when Jonny Lindqvist joined as vocalist for 2000s Afterlife opus, slowly shifting the style into a more hard rock oriented sound. This culminated with the radio friendly, power meets hair metal steaming mess of 2007s The 8th Sin, which proved a highly divisive release for fans. And that’s where the saga ended, as the band subsequently fell apart and faded from memory. Now 10 years later they pop out of a rabbit hole with Phoenix, sounding for all the world as if the past decade never happened. Phoenix sounds like the natural followup to The 8th Sin that somehow got badly lost in the mail only to be delivered after many a season has come and gone. Whether you’re willing to accept anti-Prime delivery depends on how you liked The 8th Sin, or for those not born back then, how you feel about Masterplan, Avantasia and the solo doodlings of one Jorn “King of All Rock” Lande.
As opener “Heart Black as Coal hits your tympanum, you’ll detect the foul aroma of metalcore riffs, but when Linqvist comes in you’ll be distracted by your sudden transportation back to 2007. The man sounds like nary a day has passed since The 8th Sin and it’s a bit disconcerting. He’s still like a mix of Tobias Sammet and a young Jorn, full of hard rock rasp and roar, and his ability to hit a catchy vocal hook is undiminished by time. The song is slick and accessible, and the core-ish riffing makes it feel heavy-ish. The hooks continue on cuts like “Before We Waste Away” and “Repent My Sins,” and it’s clear the band aimed at maximum accessibility and memorability, and for the most part nailed it.
They get more adventurous on “The Poisonous Seed,” adding a progressive flare along with increased aggression, sounding like a pissed off Anubis Gate and it works quite well. In fact, it makes me want more of this style instead of the album’s hard rock/power fusion. “The Ghost Inside Me” goes full yacht metal, sailing into Avantasia territory replete with violins and other symphonic accouterments and while it’s decent, it won’t make anyone forget Sammet’s compositional prowess. The album ends strong on the aggressive, borderline thrash of “Welcome to the End,” where the band seems to wake up angry and ornery. Not every song is a hit though, and cuts like “A Song For You” and “Flames” are a bit too melodic and laid back for their own good. The biggest drawback is the somewhat shallow feel some of the more melodic cuts have. It’s like cotton candy – you like it but there’s not much there when you think about it.
At 43 minutes, Phoenix is an easy listen full of catchy, uncomplicated fare. The songs are all radio-ready length and no track feels like it needs to be shown the door. The sound is somewhat loud, but it’s not a serious issue.
The biggest surprise is how great Jonny Lindqvist sounds after such a long layoff from music. His Jorn-ish, bluesy vocal style is still easy to love and he adds considerable gravitas. Original guitarist Frederik Mannberg and new ace Per Nilsson (Scar Symmetry) pepper the album with heavy, core-ish riffwork to support the otherwise melodic, semi-poppy music and it creates the same useful tension Scar Symmetry always benefited from. Their occasional sojourns into more proggy soundscapes are the most interesting parts of the album though, and something I hope to hear much more of in the future.
I never expected to hear from Nocturnal Rites again, and after such a long walk through limbo, they certainly sound feisty and ready to rock for a new generation of metal fans. Phoenix is a solid, enjoyable album to build their second phase of life upon and I’m glad they’re back. Hopefully we get the next installment before I join AARP.