I’m a fan of Pharaoh, have been since their 2003 debut After the Fire. These Philly fanatics are the present and future of the new retro wave of traditional heavy metal (NRWOTHM) and over their short but solid career, they’ve fused retro ideals with prog and enough thrash sensibility to kick the required ass quotient. While they wear their Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Saxon influences on their leather sleeves, they also follow in the spiked footsteps of American titans like Jag Panzer, Iced Earth and Helstar. Their output has been consistently classy, polished and full of fantastic guitar fireworks from the phenom that is Matt Johnsen. Ever since their Ten Years EP hit last year, Steel Druhm has been one anxious attack doggy waiting for this platter to arrive on his doorstep. Despite my slavish Pharaoh-boyism and consequently unrealistic expectations, I’m happily surprised by the quality of Bury the Light. It shows an increasingly proficient and able Pharaoh maintaining their winning sound while managing to advance it in interesting new ways. This is an album awash with wicked guitar licks, powerhouse vocals, adrenaline, melody and most importantly, great songs! As fist-in-the-air as metal gets and loaded with charm and character, this is an early contender for album of the year. Interested yet?
Without running through a droolingly favorable track-by-track dissertation, let me just say, Bury the Light sticks to the basic Pharaoh blueprint of electrifying fretboard gymnastics teamed with the leather-lunged wail of Tim Aymar. Most of the songs have that distinctive Maiden gallop but don’t sound like Maiden cast offs. All have aggression to spare and zip along intensely while reeling of scads of hooks and memorably nuanced moments. Unlike many bands that base their hooks around vocals patterns, Pharaoh packs just as many, if not more memorable elements into the guitar-work. Johnsen shines on each and every song and his style is a highly addicting one. The raw urgency of “The Wolves” and “Castle in the Sky” is hard to resist (the solo during “Castle” is a tasteful planet killer). The sheer catchiness of the riffs on “The Spider’s Thread” and “Burn With Me” are amazing to behold and sure to impress even the most jaded and cynical metalhead.
The centerpiece of Bury the Light is the mammothly epic “The Year of the Blizzard,” which spins and contorts through several incarnations and traverses a series of moods, all impressive. It contains Aymar’s most impassioned vocals to date and that includes his great performance on the Control Denied album. He really steps up his already considerable game on this one and manages to sound like Dickinson and Halford at different points while always maintaining his own identity. “Blizzard” also features a plethora of interesting guitar choices from Johnsen. Some of his riffs remind of classic The Who, some are straight up thrash, and let us not forget his seemingly endless collection of amazingly slippery, fluid solos. This song alone pretty much justifies buying the album.
By now, it’s probably clear I’m somewhat partial to Johnsen’s style of guitar hero noodling and plucking. What else can I say? He’s a one-man metal machine stuck on the shred setting. He elevated the last Dawnbringer album to greatness and brings the same thoughtful gloss to Bury the Light. You can’t listen to these songs and fail to be impressed with what he adds to the material. The best part is, he doesn’t resort to overly showy, Yngwie-style wankery to get his point across. It’s the little details and flourishes he incorporates that makes the music crackle and hum with power and energy. Also of note is Aymar’s rough, raspy delivery, which sets Pharaoh apart from similar acts and gives them a deadly serious edge. Though he usually sounds like he just gargled broken glass and rusty razors, he can sing with the best of them and he’s as big a piece of the Pharaoh puzzle as Johnsen is. I would be neglectful if I didn’t give a nod to the rock solid drumming of Chris Black (also Dawnbringer) and the interesting bass play by Chris Kearns (you can actually hear him and he does some cool stuff). This is a top flight band and they lock into some great jams over the course of Bury the Light.
This is gritty, sinewy metal with enough technical proficiency to nuke the whales and burn the rainforests (not that I’m advocating that…officially). I expected a lot from this release and still got more than I bargained for. Pharaoh is one of the best pure metal bands out there and this gem will hopefully get them some well deserved attention and accolades. If you’ve slept on their career up until now, this is a great place to start. If you’ve been on the wagon all along, you’ll still be surprised and impressed by the strides they’ve taken. A big win for an increasingly essential act. Hail the Pharaoh and support quality metal!