Remember those shreddy noodlefest albums Shrapnel Records put out in the 80s and 90s? They’d basically take a guitar wiz kid like Marty Friedman and have him wank and solo through eight or ten tracks of masturbatory and self-congratulatory Yngwie worship. Since most of these albums sounded like 45 minute solos where the rest of the band went for coffee, they were never my cup of tea, but I certainly respected the talent involved. One of Shrapnel’s second-tier wank masters was Toby Knapp. After his stint on the noodle circuit he went on to found the very respectable throwback American power metal band Onward and release two very solid albums under that moniker. When Onward singer Michael Grant passed away at a tragically young age, Knapp swore he would never again do the classic metal thing under the Onward name so as to preserve Grant’s legacy. He then drifted into black metal projects like Waxen and Godless Rising.
Where Evil Follows is Knapp’s new project, named after one of the better Onward songs, and essentially it’s Onward 2.0 and his return to the music he seems to love most. While it lacks some of the slick, NWoBHM flair his old band had, this is a fun and joyous return to the retro fold for one of its prodigal sons.
While Portable Darkess is loaded with nods to Onward, it plays out like a travel guide to the bigs of 80s American power metal, making all the expected stops, including Jag Panzer-ville, Helstar Manor, Agent Steel Estates and Abattoir Avenue. Hell, at times I even hear some Savage Grace and Sacred Oath in this thing, but enough with the name dropping. Opener “Reborn” welcomes you with Knapp’s bouncing, old school riff style and at once I realized I missed having this guy around. His playing is very warm and engaging and it’s such a happy, jaunty throwback you can’t help but bang your head. “They Came For Us” ups the speed significantly, mixing Overkill with Agent Steel and Riot and Knapp gets to flex his Shrapnel muscles once again. It’s good frenzied fun for all with loads of class and a touch of whimsy.
The rest of Portable Darkness is much the same, at varying speeds. “Symbiotic” sees the band take on a huge Helstar influence and though I can’t find a credit in the promo sheet, I’m almost certain James Rivera sings guest vocals here. “Oppressive Grey” channels more than a little Icarus Witch for a memorable brood-fest, and the title track hits the Agent Steel juice hard for a fast and furious fusillade of old timey nostalgia metal (seriously, the riffs here are so damn Agent Steel-centric, there may be an injunction filed).
The only weak point is the cover of Black Sabbath‘s “Disturbing the Priest,” which I never cared for, and care for even less here. Other than that, this is a short sharp shock of retro metal done with style and veteran panache.
Though Knapp is clearly the focal point, vocalist/bassist Dean Sternberg (Ashes of Ares, Into Eternity) is perfectly cast and adds greatly to the fun, approximating and mimicking the 80s vocal style of several genre stars while making good use of his impressive range. He even adds some death roars here and there to keep things a touch modern. As for Mr. Knapp, naturally he goes all Shrapnel at appropriate moments, but he never overdoes it. As impressive and fluid as his solos are, I’m more of a fan of his riff writing prowess. The man writes such engaging leads, they make the songs hum and pop.
I still prefer Onward, but it’s great to have Toby Knapp back doing this kind of music again. He’s a talented guy and a very good song writer with his metal heart in the right place and it shows on every facet of Portable Darkness. If you’re ready for a guitar-driven trip down Metal Memory Lane, Mr. Knapp has the jacked up tour bus revving and ready to go. Keep your arms inside the vehicle at all times, you rubes.