Ashes of Ares – Emperors and Fools Review

When I think of my very favorite metal vocalists of all time, Matt Barlow ranks near the top. Alongside Warrel Dane (Nevermore, Sanctuary) and Russell Allen (Symphony X), Barlow completes my unholy trinity of metal singers, singers who are not only known for having ear-piercing range, but also for having the ability to balance vicious, gritty performances with emotional finesse. Barlow’s time as the classic Iced Earth vocalist solidified him as one of these legendary figures in my personal mythology, and that legend was only strengthened when I learned that he’d left the band to pursue a career as a police officer after the events of 9/11. His return to the mic with Pyramaze was a pleasant surprise, and I really enjoyed the 2013 self-titled debut from Ashes of Ares, the project he formed with former Iced Earth bassist Freddy Vidales. For whatever reason, I missed Ashes of Ares‘ 2018 sophomore platter Well of Souls, but when I saw follow-up Emperors and Fools had found its way into the January promo bin, I threatened violence against any reviewer who might try to take it from me.

On paper, Ashes of Ares should be my jam. A personal top-three vocalist and instrumentalists from two of my favorite acts of all time in Vidales and session drummer Van Williams (Nevermore)? Yes please! The potential inherent in such a lineup was mostly capitalized upon on the act’s debut, landing somewhere in the 3.0 to 3.5 range for me, but I’ve been hoping to receive a true knockout blow from these guys. I sampled Well of Souls in preparation for this review, and it was a bit more of the same, and I’m somewhat disappointed to report that Emperors and Fools is no different. Don’t get me wrong—this is in no way a bad album; it simply fails to distinguish itself from its predecessors. Channeling the styles of the members’ previous bands, Ashes of Ares specializes in grooving heavy/power metal with small hints of progressive exploration. Embedded single “By My Blade” shows the band at full strength, its triplet riff, soaring vocals, and creepy interlude recalling Barlow’s glory days.

I’ve always thought that Matt Barlow’s projects run best at full throttle, and Ashes of Ares is no exception. Sure, Barlow has performed some great ballads over the years, but there have also been some that missed the mark. Heavier tracks like “I Am the Night” and “Where God Fears to Go” allow the powerful vocals to glide atop Vidales’ gnarly riffing, and the result is glorious. The epic “The Iron Throne” is my favorite track on here, and I get chills every time Barlow hits the epic high note in the intro. His lower register sounds absolutely brilliant when combined with the sinisterly triumphant music laid down by Vidales and Williams. Massive closer “Monster’s Lament” should delight current and former Iced Earth fans alike with a guest spot from Ripper Owens—it’s pretty fun to hear two of metal’s most distinctive voices duking it out over the course of the track’s 11-plus minutes.

Unfortunately, there are a few too many moments where these guys take their foot off the gas. There may not be a bad track on here, but some of the more mid-paced tracks (“Emperors and Fools,” “What Tomorrow May Bring,” “Gone,” and “Throne of Iniquity”) fail to etch themselves into my memory despite two dozen listens. At an hour in length, Emperors and Fools stood a decent chance at achieving a much higher score had some (or all) of these tracks been left on the cutting room floor. Another issue that I have here—although it’s far from a dealbreaker—is that occasionally the vocal layering that Barlow’s voice is subjected to on the record can become a bit distracting, even going so far as to make him sound a bit flat in spots. Granted, this happens sparingly, but it’s still something that I’ve not gotten fully accustomed to. Nagging issues aside, there are still a good amount of heavy metal bangers to experience here, namely “I Am the Night,” “Where God Fears to Go,” “By My Blade,” “The Iron Throne,” and “Monster’s Lament.”

While Emperors and Fools isn’t the Ashes of Ares record I was hoping for, there’s still enough good stuff here to warrant a listen for genre fans. Yes, with some editing the album would be far more compelling. But I have to admit that after the recent events surrounding Barlow’s most famous former project, it’s been therapeutic to spend some time with his amazing voice. The man is a metal legend, and I’m honored to have gotten to cover one of his projects.

Rating: 2.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: ROAR! Rock of Angels Records
Websites: | |
Releases Worldwide: January 21st, 2022

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