Though I’ll admit to having steered clear of “Christian metal” over the years due to some silly, small-minded prejudices, there have been exceptions that slowly opened my eyes. Trouble began life as a “white metal” act and I still loved them intensely, and little known Barren Cross caught me in a weirdly inescapable web of hooks with their Atomic Arena album back in 88. Much more recently I was completely blown away by Theocracy‘s 2011 opus As the World Bleeds, which mixed bombastic power with prog and classic metal in a way that suited me down to my nonspiritual bones. Sure, the lyrics were preachy and hokey at times, but you couldn’t find flaws in the music or song writing if you had an electron microscope. After what seemed an overlong delay we finally get something new from these choir boys in the form of Ghost Ship, and though it no longer must overcome innate resistance to “God rock,” it must instead bear the dual burdens of great expectations and longtime anticipation. Attach the Stones of Judgment!
As if to smite these unfair obstacles, opener “Paper Tiger” does an amazing job of picking up exactly where As the World Bleeds left off 5 years ago. It’s that same, mega-upbeat, Euro-inspired power-prog with bombast piled on bombast like Avantasia on steroids and in a hurry to get to the gym for leg day. It’s instantly likable and has what seems like 2 great choruses before the real chorus arrives to make you sing to the heavens of all things good and kind. It reminds of the stuff Stratovarius churned out in their glory days but this is even more oversized and catchy. The title track swoops in before you can recover your jaded outlook and blackened frown and blasts you with one of the best power metal songs of 2016. Led by Matt Smith’s commanding vocal attack the song builds and builds, again using false flag faux-choruses better than what 90% of power metal bands deliver, before dropping the actual chorus on you like the Holy Anvil of Acme. Smith’s soaring vocal lines are effectively offset by surprisingly heavy, crunchy riffing and the writing is so good you want the song to keep going until Kingdom come.
The thrash attack on “The Wonder of it All” is a welcome shot in the arm and the chorus is as infectious and buoyant as it gets, ensuring it sticks after one spin. “Wishing Well” has Kamelot-esque pomp mixed with an Anubis Gate influence in the vocal phrasing, and the excellent “Currency in a Bankrupt World” calls to mind the brilliance of the early Crimson Glory material as Smith drops another outstanding vocal performance.
While no song comes remotely close to bad, the album is a bit front-loaded and later cuts like “A Call to Arms” and “Castaway” can’t quite compete with the high-octane songcraft on the album’s front half, despite being exceptionally catchy in their own right. The biggest miss is the epic 10-minute closer “Easter,” which has some impressive performances but drags on too long. Despite the ending, at 54 minutes Ghost Ship generally avoids feeling overlong due to the joyous nature of the music. The fact they’ve streamlined their writing and shortened the average song length helps as well, with most tracks hitting hard then turning the other cheek and leaving before the Communion bread gets stale.
Founder/keyboardist/vocalist Matt Smith is a wildly talented cat and his vocals seem to improve with each release. He’s got a warm, crystal clear voice and a big range and knows how to use it to power a song to the next level. Though he often sounds like Michael Sweet (Stryper) at the higher ranges, he has a more “metal” style which adds a little heft to the music. The talented tandem of Val Allen Wood and Jonathan Hinds return to shred and riff in the Lord’s service, and a mighty fine job they do. The bulk of their playing is typical for the power-prog genre but always exceptionally well done, and the use of heavy riffing helps keeps the “up with people” approach from feeling too soft.
It was going to be a near Herculean effort to best As the World Bleeds and though Ghost Ship falls a bit short, the first half is as good as anything on that album. This is one of the best power-prog releases of the year and regardless of the band’s spiritual affiliation, the writing is impressive and at times, near-perfect. If you’ve slept on Theocracy because of the whole “Christian metal” thing, you’re missing out on some first-rate music. I’ve been that guy in the past. Don’t be that guy now.