With few exceptions, 2016 sucked for power metal. Sabaton made their first real whiff, Rage dropped their worst album in ages, and Twilight Force tarnished an otherwise solid record with dreadful production. And then came Wardrum. Starting in 2011 this Greek band produced three albums in as many years, and while I’d previously encountered them, their brand of straightforward power metal never managed to get its hooks in me. Three years have passed since their third record Messengers and, after a successful Indiegogo campaign, they’re back with Awakening. And what an awakening it is.
In the past, Wardrum played prog-tinged power metal with a foot planted firmly in traditional heavy metal; think Crimson Glory meets Nocturnal Rites. While the formula has essentially remained untouched, it feels as though the band used every spare second between the release of their prior album and Awakening to hone every conceivable aspect of their sound. This is the rarest of power metal albums that are at once melodic, aggressive, and technical, and with an excellent, crisp and heavy sounding production to boot. Vocal and guitar harmonies dominate throughout to lend the tracks density without feeling overstuffed, and the choruses are melodic yet avoid sounding as though they’ve been drowned in a vat of queso. Awakening is perhaps the greatest balancing act that the genre has produced in years; it’s grand and bombastic enough for power metal devotees, yet should not alienate those hoping for a more traditional heavy metal record.
Yannis Papadopoulos, whose voice sounds like Midnight (Crimson Glory) crossed with Ben Soto (Heavenly), has morphed from an above-average singer to a world-class power metal vocalist who can hit any note you throw at him and beyond. His performance is powerful and genuinely emotive, and shows him capable of hitting any high note while never once straying out of tune. Meanwhile, drummer Stergio Kourou casually delivers the greatest drum performance on a power metal album this year. His complex patterns that utilize his entire kit make for some stunningly technical performances (see: “Shade of Hope”), and the sub-blistering paced tempos allow him room to experiment in a way that all-out speed simply wouldn’t allow. Kourou and guitarist Kosta Vreto make an incredible songwriting duo; I didn’t learn until the time of this writing that they evenly split songwriting duties (each contributed six tracks), as the songs are remarkably consistent in quality and tone.
The only legitimate criticism I can aim at Awakening is that it’s a touch overlong. “Time Is the Enemy” and “Dreams In the Dark” are both very good cuts that don’t quite measure up to the rest, and if these tracks had been axed, the album would have benefited from a sweet-spot length of 48 minutes with nary a single weak link. Keep in mind that this is an extremely nitpicky criticism, though, as Wardrum has still produced what I believe is undoubtedly the best power metal album of 2016. It ticks nearly all of the boxes on my checklist of what I hope for in a power metal release and is one of the most universally accessible offerings the genre has produced in years. Don’t sleep on Awakening.
Tracks to Check Out: “Right Within Your Heart,” “Skies of Grey,” and “Shade of Hope”