Very occasionally, lurking in the shadows of a genre I generally skip over, a band leaps out to capture my attention with a blend of elements exceptional enough in quality to turn my head despite my bias. California’s Graveshadow is generally declared to be symphonic and/or gothic metal – both of which I write off regularly due to an incompatibility in taste. However, the first moments of Ambition’s Price indicate something rather different and more engaging going on than the usual “Beauty and the Beast” wretching sessions or interminably boring instrumental snoozefests that typically make these subgenres inaccessible for me. Ambition’s Price is the quintet’s second foray into the field, and after a bit of sampling from 2015’s debut, Nocturnal Resurrection, it’s clear that this act has taken the next step toward finding its own identity in the US metal underground.
The first and easily most outstanding element working in Graveshadow’s favor is the voice of Heather Smith, known to me for her stellar work on Helion Prime’s debut, though she has now parted ways with that band. Heather performs all vocals on Ambition’s Price in stellar fashion – powerful self-harmonization for choruses, capably scathing growls, and an impressively balanced alto to fill in all of the gaps. Smith’s delivery draws positive comparisons to the likes of Sarah Teets (MindMaze), Britney Hayes (Unleash the Archers), and Mary Zimmer (Luna Mortis, White Empress), and anchors her as the cornerstone of a band that, without her, would undeniably lose its defining characteristic.
Musically, Ambition’s Price is rather UNambitious. The pace is quite slow and deliberate throughout most of the album, with noticeable doom stylings in the acoustic guitar, slow-paced riffs, and frequent unison of guitar and supporting keys. The primary exception to this is the relatively quick-burning “Hero of Time,” which would make of itself an earworm even on an album chock full of power metal. However, Graveshadow’s meatier tunes prove themselves equally well even to this speed- and melody-addicted reviewer. The sinister cast and churning rhythmic guitar maelstrom of “Liberator” makes it an eye-popper, and the back-and-forth bittersweet of opener “Doorway to Heaven” is not a bad indicator of the nature of the album as a whole. “Widow and the Raven” stands out as another memorable track – its humble instrumentation galvanized by storytelling lyricism and tremendous vocal swells.
There are a handful of throwaway songs here, but not nearly as many as one might expect. The theatricality, frequent (and yet judicious) use of harsh vocals and keyboard samples, and minimalist rhythmic elements all prop up Heather Smith’s singing – often to the exclusion of everything else. The net result is a bundle of potentially engaging, vocally-carried tunes, but if and when the voice fails to deliver something worthwhile, the whole effort becomes somewhat faceless. As such, listener enjoyment of Ambition’s Price is likely to vary wildly depending on their taste for Smith’s timbre and delivery. Personally, Ambition’s Price reminds me of what I wanted out of the chaotic and often overly harsh days of early Unleash the Archers. Graveshadow delivers better atmosphere, a much slower and more methodical approach, and even more compelling vocal melody. Thematically, this is often in line with UtA’s newer material, though the two are not particularly musically comparable.
I recommend Ambition’s Price without hesitation for fans of slower, moody, and simplistic melodic death metal, which is how I’d classify this. As an album, it doesn’t incorporate many gothic, power, or symphonic tendencies, and almost has the feeling of a vocalist’s solo work. As such, it isn’t the most consistently hooky or comprehensively impressive album I’ve heard this year, nor near the most instrumentally adroit, but manages instead to sway via good fundamentals and consistency. Graveshadow is also worth checking into for those, like myself, who are frequently unimpressed by female lead singers in metal. Heather Smith is terrific, and the fact that she handles growls as well speaks even more to her credit. A worthwhile endeavor from a band to watch in the US independent metal scene.