I miss Swordborn. I really do. He was up on all the latest power metal cheddar and well steeped in the genre’s Gouda, bad and ugly. With him inexplicably missing in action, I’m tasked with more power metal glory than I’ve seen since the primordial days of AMG. That means taking the bitter with the sweet and brother, there’s a lot of bitter out there. That brings us to Sweden’s Bloodbound, who began life as a traditional metal act helmed by the great Urban Breed (ex-Tad Morose, ex-Serious Black). After he left the band, they shifted from classic to power metal, and since 2014s Stormborn,1 they’ve been playing the Game of Thrones, delivering tales of dragons, empires, and elves with somewhat uneven results. 2017’s War of Dragons was entertaining in a silly, super Helloweenie way, and Rise of the Dragon Empire picks up where that left off. That means you’ll be ruthlessly clubbed with pirate beshirted Euro-power much like Dragonland and early Edguy, by a band unafraid to get their orc on. Are you dressed appropriately for dragon riding? Do you have a foe hammer? Let’s fly, you fools!
The opening title track left me quite conflicted initially. The vocal melodies triggered a strong sense of déjà vu but I was unable to determine where I heard them before. Enter Madam X who gleefully informed me it was the melody from “Never Ending Story” by 80s new wave rocker Limahl. This troubling revelation naturally ruined everything, forcing me to cast off my chest plate and throw down my barbarian sword in defeat. Truth be told, despite this shameful purloining from my childhood, the song’s chorus is so insidiously catchy, its been leasing mind space in Steel‘s head for weeks at shockingly affordable prices. The rest of the album is composed of similar romps through mid-tempo, sword-shaking territory, endeavoring to wed epic atmospheres with big hooks and a modicum of heaviness.
Songs like “Slayer of Kings” and “Skyriders and Stormbringers” have a strong Vain Glory Opera-era Edguy flavor and benefit from slick writing and huge choruses that reek of Tobias Sammet’s cologne and hair product. Others like “Giants of Heaven,” and especially “A Blessing in Sorcery” feature a strong Sabaton influence, but instead of tanks and trenches, the lyrics sing of Starks and dragon barks. “Magical Eye” is a fun rocker with the repeat refrain of “Enter the realm of the cold stonehearted,” which makes me want to run to Coldstone Creamery® every damn time. The song quality is very consistent over the course of the album’s nicely concise 46 minutes, and the only track that leaves me wanting is the righteously overblown “Blackwater Bay,” which drifts too far down Gloryhammer inlet for my refined tastes. The fact most of the material is mid-tempo isn’t as much of an issue as you’d expect, and the absence of blazing speeds isn’t a serious handicap, though a touch more urgency would make for a more diverse listen.
The Bloodbound sound has embedded itself nicely in Middle Earth strata, as the band gets better at the power metal shtick with each release. Guitarists Tomas and Henrik Olsson steer the ship well with no-nonsense riffs and some righteous solo-work. Patrik Johansson continues to improve as a vocalist, and now reminds me a great deal of Tobias Sammet. He doesn’t crush his manhood in a vice to hit ear-piercing notes very often, instead inhabiting an effective mid-range that sounds polished and confident. The keyboards get too invasive and quasi-symphonic at times, but there’s just enough restraint to save the material from Diabetes. The fact most of the songs run between three and four minutes is a boon, and it all flies by before your sword arm gets tired.
Rise of the Dragon Empire is a million miles away from the straight-up metal of their early albums, but Bloodbound are growing into this style nicely, and I’m enjoying this more than I expected. It’s better than War of Dragons, and shows the band continuing in the right direction. I hope they can keep the magic going, because it’s albums like this that make Euro-power more palatable to lactose-intolerant types. This dragon’s for you, Swordborn, wherever you may roam.