When you see an album adorned with a mighty eagle bearing a sword as drawn by a Venice Beach tattoo artist, you know you’re messin’ with one epic son of a bitch. Though they started life as a traditional doom act, over time Grand Magus transitioned into a kind of trve, Manowar-inspired unit, with said transition most obvious on 2014’s Triumph and Power. That album had some killer moments but felt like the work of a band in the midst of an identity crisis. Sword Songs continues along the same arc musically and thematically but manages to incorporate more of their classic sound, which is a huge plus for long time fans. The band also sounds a lot more confident and self-assured this time, resulting in a much more consistent outing overall. Sure, increasing the Odin, swords and honor shtick undoubtedly leaves some fans pining for the days of “subtle” gems like “Iron Will” and “Black Sails,” but it appears the era of trve doom has ended and we must enlist in the new crusade or be left behind forevermore.
The good news is, the better blend of new and old Magus makes the war camp much more interesting, with opener “Freja’s Choice” sounding like something off Hammer of the North and rocking Viking-approved riffs and typically great vocals by JB Christoffersson. It’s instantly accessible, engaging and the kind of song you can’t help but enjoy (unless you’re false and tricksy). There’s some really sweet guitar-work running throughout and at a concise 4 minutes, it’s over before you want it to be. And the chest thumping and back hair braiding is only just get started. “Born for Battle (Black Dog of Broceliande)” sounds like a merger of Argus and Spiritual Beggars supervised by Fireball Ministry, and that can only lead to good things. It’s like stoner metal about glory and combat and the thick, burly riffs make throne usurpation seem like a career worth examining.
The swagger and meat sweats continue unabated on “Master of the Land” which is very much like classic Magus with a bit more accessibility come chorus time as JB croons and bellows about riding into glory and mastering this land or that. “Last One to Fall” is more predictable and simplistic but works due to JB’s enormously charismatic voice and the well-realized old school flair. I hoped “Frost and Fire” was a cover of the immortal Cirith Ungol number, but instead it’s a highly enjoyable epic metal tune with balls ov steel that will rattle around in your head long after it ends.
While the majority of the (sword) songs are quite tasty, “Varangian” is undone by a massively cheeseball chorus which sounds like third-rate Manowar (i.e. Majesty). This is despite a really snazzy lead riff which deserved a much better song. Likewise, “Forged in Iron – Crowned in Steel” has really good moments like the chants of “Odin grant me gold and glory,” but the chorus is painfully silly and comic bookish. At a shockingly brief 33 minutes, Sword Songs flies by quickly and actually left me wishing there were a few more quality tunes to swing my axe along with. In the age of the hour-plus album (and dreaded triple album), this is a rare occasion indeed.
JB is one of my favorite singers in all of metaldom and he delivers as always on Sword Songs. He has the perfect voice for these kinds of “live to fight, die for glory” ditties and his singing lends gravitas and authority to even the cheesy clunkers. When it comes to his riff-work, he’s almost as dependable and there are all sorts of wicked, hooky leads scattered through the material. While the song writing takes a few hits when it gets too silly or sing-along friendly, Magus has always excelled at making cliched topics seem sincere and JB is a big part of that. The war drumming of Ludwig Witt is powerful and dynamic, like what Scott Columbus did for Manowar on their best albums and I always enjoy his exuberant thumping and bashing. Likewise, Fox Skinner’s heavy duty bass-work gives the sound all the muscle and heft it requires.
This is no return to the halcyon days of Hammer of the North and Iron Will, and some may regard it as Grand Magus Lite, but it’s easy to like traditional metal with epic flavor and a warrior’s grit, executed by seasoned pros. By the power of Grayskull, that’s nothing to sneeze at!