During my teenage years I listened to power metal so obsessively that I read every professional and personal “best of power metal” list and watched every YouTube power metal compilation I could get my grubby, uncoordinated mitts on. Even so, bands I somehow overlooked, such as Vhäldemar, are regularly brought to my attention. A Spanish band that’s been active since 1999, Vhäldemar released a pair of relatively well received albums in the early 00’s, featuring influences far-flung as Gamma Ray, Manowar, and Rhapsody. After independently releasing a couple of underwhelming records in the early half of this decade, they’ve found a new home with Fighter Records, a label known around these parts for harboring the disasterpiece that is Tales of Gaia‘s Hypernova. Will Against All Kings display a return to form for Vhäldemar – and a shot at redemption for their label?
Thankfully, I can’t think of a power metal album in recent memory as far removed from Hypernova’s aesthetic as Against All Kings. While that record represented the fluffiest aspects of the power metal genre to the point of unintentional parody, Vhäldemar’s sound here is riff-based and immense. Cutting out much of the melo-power metal influence that defined their earlier material, Against All Kings is Heavy with a capital H, and falls squarely into the school of Big Dumb Fun populated by largely mid-paced acts such Manowar, Hammerfall, and Dream Evil. This isn’t a revolutionary approach by any stretch, but I find Vhäldemar’s pairings of massive walls of power chords with anthemic gang choruses to be strangely satisfying and addictive, and at just under forty minutes it leaves me wholly satisfied yet consistently slamming the replay button.
While most of Against All Kings opts for the reliably solid mid-paced approach, well-spaced spikes of speed keep the record engaging so as not to risk falling into a monotonous routine. “Old King’s Visions (Part V)” showcases Rage-esque riffage that flexes guitarist Pedro Monge’s technical muscle and injects the proceedings with a shot of instrumental complexity, whereas “Howling at the Moon” employs classic Helloween rhythms alongside catchy folk leads and a fantastic chorus to become one of my favorite tracks in the genre this year. Speaking of Helloween, “Walking in the Rain” is an outright oddity in that in mimics that band’s modern sound with startling accuracy. I’m not sure whether there’s a guest singer on this track, but if not, long-time vocalist Carlos Escudero does an excellent job of emulating the timbre and cadences of Helloween’s Andi Deris.
Escudero’s snarling, gravelly delivery may prove too over the top for some, but I find his distinct approach an effective and charming fit for Vhäldemar, conveying lyrics about killing kings with all the veracity you’d expect from your libertarian uncle who visits every Christmas. The refrains he delivers largely hit home – the choruses of “Howling at the Moon” and “Eye for an Eye” explode with power metal pomp, while the title track’s refrain soars with glam rock grandiosity – but others fall just a bit flat (namely that of “The Last to Die”). Really, my musical complaints against AAK boil down to nitpicking, but the record’s sole pitfall lies in its production. This thing is fucking loud, and while the mastering gives Vhäldemar the “larger than life” sound they were probably hoping for, I’d love to hear a decently dynamic version of it. The guitar and drum tones are appropriately thunderous, though, but the bass tone is fairly wimpy and the keyboards are largely pushed to the background. I appreciate Vhäldemar’s guitar-first approach, but I found myself puzzled as to why they even keep a keyboardist in their employ when they’re relegating his audibility to the occasional lead or solo.
After many, many listens, I’m still uncertain as to why Against All Kings hooked me the way it did. It’s not inventive by any stretch, but Vhäldemar’s totally unpretentious blending of heavy and melodic varieties of power metal is so catchy and rockable that, even as I write this review, I find myself being sucked back in for more. It’s a shame the production couldn’t have seen a bit more dynamic breathing room, but as there’s a vinyl version releasing sometime in December, production snobs interested in the album may want to wait until then to pick this up. If you’re a fan of this style of power metal, pick it up either way.