There aren’t many modern bands that pull off that vintage 80s American metal style without sounding contrived or cheesy or both. Aska is an unheralded, mega-obscure band that can count themselves among the few with that magic touch. Though in existence since 1994, they’ve only managed to release six albums and Fire Eater is the long-awaited (by thirty of us) follow-up to 2007s Absolute Power. Apart from the glaring lack of productivity, they’ve had long-running issues with the consistency of their material. While they were capable of penning some real old school scorchers, they also had a tendency to drop a few stinkers per album that would leave me shaking my head. Still, when they nail their brand of traditional metal, it rings loud and trve across the land. Their sound is a mixture of Jag Panzer, mid-period Helstar and early Agent Steel, but the learned listener will hear traces of other renowned U.S. acts like Crimson Glory, Manowar, Liege Lord and Riot. They take these classic metal influences, infuse a slight hard rock sheen and the result is unapologetically retro, throwback music done so enthusiastically and sounding so damn metal, it’s tough to resist buying whatever they’re selling, even if you’re weary of old school fare. Perhaps it’s the six-year downtime, but Fire Eater feels even more vibrant and energetic than usual and contains some of their best material to date. It isn’t without missteps, but those are less odious than usual and on balance, this is quite the enjoyable slab of metallic Americana.
This isn’t a very tough album to describe. It has big, ripping numbers like “Everyone Dies,” “Son of a God” and “Eye of the Serpent” which merge Unstoppable Force era Agent Steel with Halford’s Painkiller era histrionics and the results are worthy of a few sincere horns-held-high. The vocals by George Call are particularly powerful and when combined with big, heavy riffs, they surely get the point across with steely urgency.
The biggest win is the power and glory of “Valhalla” which is far more Manowar than anything the loinclothed ones have come up with in ages. It’s a big, brainless ode to Viking fury and the intrinsic beauty of dying with a broadsword shoved through your gut and Joey DeMaio should listen to it for a week before attempting to write anything remotely related to the next Manowar opus. Almost as good is the emotionally edgy tale of a shitty relationship in “Dead Again,” where Mr. Call sounds appropriately tortured, bitter and on track for a restraining order. “Year of the Jubilee” is an unexpected attempt at symphonic-heavy Euro-power and it works surprisingly well, as does the slightly proggy “Red Cell” which sounds like the recent material from Pharaoh.
The oddities include the overwrought power ballad “Angela” which Survivor could have written for the Rocky IV soundtrack (you know, if it had a babe called Angela in it). It’s cheesy as hell in that 80s way and a lot like the stuff Brother Firetribe comes up with and it doesn’t belong here at all. The bigger disaster is the pointless cover of “The Ripper.” Not only has this Priest classic been done to death by every type of band, but Mr. Call tries his damnedest to out-Halford Halford Himself and that’s a lost cause from the get-go. He overdoes things so much, he ultimately makes Ripper Owens sound subtle by comparison (no easy task).
Aska has always been a vehicle for George Call to show off his big vocal range and Fire Eater is no exception. He’s the center of attention as he belts out a manly mid-range punctuated with ear-splitting high notes and Halford-esque wails. Generally, he uses his tools well, but he has a tendency to overdo it and go overboard with the air-raidy aspect of his singing. Still, the guy bleeds metal and his commitment comes through on every song (except “Angela” of course). To back up the vocals, Darren Knapp and Call craft a bunch of typically old timey riffs, but this time they dial up the heavy factor, which works in their favor on most songs. There’s plenty of the classic Maiden gallop, but a lot of riffs are pure 80s American metal like Jag Panzer and Agent Steel. The solos are over-the-top, the harmonies borrow from Judas Priest and though there are no surprises, it’s pretty well done and at times, rather classy.
Hardly a world-beating release, but when it’s good, Fire Eater is surprisingly good. Definitely worth a spin for lovers of the glory days of U.S. metal and best avoided by everyone else. In fact, they dodged a bullet by having me review this since I can see AMG ripping this to pieces with evil glee.