Californian RPG rockers Gygax rose from the ashes of Gypsyhawk back in 2015, and impressed the hell out of a particular man-cat with both 2016’s Critical Hits and last year’s 2nd Edition. The blend of RPG tropes and Thin Lizzy-esque boogie rock made for a wonderful combination, and each ended up getting at least a mention on my Top Ten lists. A little over a year since 2nd Edition, and the merry travelers already have High Fantasy ready for a new campaign, fresh party members, and nine more songs chock full of Dungeons & Dragons-inspired 70s rock. But on their third quest, the merry four-piece have hit a fairly large bump in the road.
But first, the good. Opener “Light Bender” charges onto the battlefield with an energetic, classic vibe that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Maiden record. Bryant Throckmorton and new guitarist Wes Wilson soar with twin guitar melodies, and even new keyboardist Ian Martyn gets a chance to shine a bit towards the song’s midway point. Bassist/vocalist Eric Harris, while never a slouch at either bass or voice in the past, sounds even more confident than ever in both his playing and his singing, with the latter seeing him hitting higher notes more frequently. Elsewhere, “Mage Lust” maintains the energy of the opener, upping the intensity and heft while getting out after a slim two-and-a-half minutes, and still getting the job done. In fact, the whole front-half of High Fantasy plays up to the band’s considerable strengths, and all is poised to be right with the world once again…
…and then High Fantasy mid-point instrumental “Acquisition, Magnus Canis” arrived, horns blaring in its direction. Okay, it’s not a bad song per se, but other than some phenomenal drumming by stand-in drummer Daniel “MuchoDrums” Velasco, it doesn’t add or subtract anything to the journey. It’s just there, and it diminishes everything after it a bit. And while the closing title track features some impressive vocal harmonies in the end, nothing on High Fantasy comes close to hitting the lofty heights of either “Lesser Magick” (off of Critical Hits) or “Pure Hearts” (2nd Edition). Nothing on here is a stinker, mind you, but nothing reaches for the sky either, save for some great guitar melodies that elevate each track on here. Also, at a meager almost-thirty minutes, it feels more like a side-quest than a full-blown adventure.
Having former guitarist Armand Tambouris helming the album’s production became quite a boon for High Fantasy, giving the album a warm 70s sound while driving Harris’ bass more to the front this time. The guitars retain the heft Gygax is known for, without overpowering everything. But a strong sense of deja vu permeates throughout High Fantasy, and while that sense was prevalent on Gygax‘s previous releases, both albums featured standouts that showcased what the band was capable of when all guns were firing together. On High Fantasy, however, it feels like the band has plateaued.
Still, while it’s playing, High Fantasy is a fun album for a cookout, summer drive, or backing music for whatever campaign your group is running at the moment. But while I still love my RPGs1 and the rock inspired by it, High Fantasy has me a little bit worried that Gygax are hitting a bit of a rut. I sincerely hope this is not the case, as I love the prior adventures they’ve shared in the past.