Ascension – Under the Veil of Madness Review

Eleven years. Eleven years since Scotland’s Ascension released their debut record, Far Beyond the Stars. While shreddery and wank found a cozy little home on that record, the songs were there, the talent amongst all involved abundant. It was clear from the very start that Ascension were a band to watch for, primed and ready to unseat DragonForce for hyper-speed cheese supremacy after Inhuman Rampage exploded in the mid-aughts. But eleven years is a long time to wait. Eventually, massive singles “Sayonara” and “Megalomaniac” dropped out of nowhere in 2022. Thus, cheeseheads across the globe awaited with bated breath for a second Ascension.

Much like Imperial Circus Dead Decadence’s eleven-year gap led to the incredible 殯――死へ耽る想いは戮辱すら喰らい、彼方の生を愛する為に命を讃える――。, eleven years did Ascension a world of good, as Under the Veil of Madness is maddeningly infectious and thoroughly engaging. Much of that comes from Fraser Edwards—of Fraser Edwards fame—and founding member Stuart Doherty, whose maniacal tag-team shredding amaze and bewilder in equal measure at all times, albeit without the aimless quality that plagues modern DragonForce. Aiding the cause is the insane vocal talent that is Richard Carnie. His extensive range, spanning the gamut between glass-shattering wails and professional near-baritone operatics, might be an acquired taste for some, but no other vocalist on the planet fits these particular tunes as well as he. Amazingly, drummer Dick Gilchrist and bassist Nick Blake are talented and skilled enough to keep up with both guitarists beat for beat, occasionally showing them up at their own game. As a unit, Ascension represent a finely oiled machine with an uncanny ability to write catchy, instantly memorable songs that offer both musical depth and fanciful whimsy, ripping out crazy leads and solos with wild abandon all the while.

Early on in my affair with Under the Veil of Madness, I interpreted the overarching plot to correspond to that of a serial killer progressing from first kill straight through full-on insanity and into inevitable demise. Opener and potential repeat Song of the Year contender “Sayonara” somewhat ham-fistedly introduces the main character and the stressor that unlocks his latent murderous desires. Nonetheless, its verses, chorus, and unhinged solos from each and every musician make this song an infinitely replayable experience. Midway through, “Monsters,” another highlight, illustrates the killer’s desire to reject his impulses, but to no avail. Once again, the number features incredible verse work and razor-sharp neoclassical licks, but also injects the same orchestral drama that helped define Twilight Force’s sound. The real tour-de-force, however, is late-album climax and (another) Song of the Year contender “Under the Veil of Madness,” which finds Ascension fully embracing their inner theatre kid. Replete with exaggerated (and, likely, divisive) vocal runs; an unforgettable chorus; an excellent operatic segment; and delightfully restrained solos, this epic details the killer’s futile attempt to get off scot-free—despite having murdered… [checks notes]… 10,075 people—using an ill-conceived insanity plea. Needless to say, Under the Veil of Madness’ story is totally ridiculous, surprisingly dark in contrast with the bright and bubbly instrumentation, and steeped in an absurd humor that ranges from only mildly cringey to delightfully whimsical.

For those who don’t dig that deep into an album’s concept, the magic of Under the Veil of Madness lies in the staggering level of detail embedded in its songwriting. Innumerable little moments enhance and elevate damn near every song on the record. The speakeasy ragtime segment in mega-hit “Megalomaniac” constitutes perhaps the single most entertaining twist, while the slap bass solo snuck into “Last Winter’s Night” singlehandedly transforms an already strong cut into yet another standout. Gregorian-esque chanting (also courtesy of Carnie) brings a divine majesty to closer “Pages of Gold,” and instrumental interlude “Power of a Thousand Suns,” while not my favorite, still revels in fugal debauchery with a quick and easily digestible bout of wank. The only song that fails to impress me, particularly in relation to its immediate neighbors, is “Set You Free.” It lacks a special ingredient or especially memorable stretch to bring it in line with its mates. As an additional nitpick, the mix seems thin, with guitar tones lacking meat in the midrange and undoubtedly canned strings lacking body entirely where they feature.

As one of many overrating bastards holding residency in these here Halls, it is my absolute pleasure to smash the Score Counter to bits with Under the Veil of Madness. The simple truth is that this record not only blows the doors off the debut, but also constitutes the first time in seventeen years that I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with a power metal record of this kind. That alone deserves to be rewarded in big ways. Ascension worked for eleven long years to deliver what is unquestionably a labor of love and, accordingly, it stands proud as a testament to great power metal. Just don’t make us wait another eleven fucking years for the next one, okay?

Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: NA | Format Reviewed: Stream
Label: Self-Release
Website: |
Releases Worldwide: February 24th, 2023

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