Human Fortress has had a strange and somewhat tragic career. I bought their 2001 debut Lord of Earth and Heavens Heir on a whim and was blown away by the classy, high-quality power metal the band delivered. Aided by the exceptional vocals of Jioti Parcharidis, the band crafted some excellent songs that have stuck with me over the years, and while the album wasn’t perfect, it was a rousing and polished slab o’ Euro-power with tons of hooks. In 2003 they took a big step forward, topping their debut with Defenders of the Crown, which has gone on to become one of my favorite power metal albums of all time and one I still play with great regularity. After this, things began to fall apart. Jioti left the band and after a 5-year wait, third album Fallen Empire was a complete dumpster fire, incorporating ill-conceived groove and metalcore elements and sounding nothing like Human Fortress. The let down was so extreme, so total, that I ceased following the band’s endeavors entirely and contented myself with their early works. I missed their subsequent two releases, but when I saw a new platter floating amidst the usually sketchy December promo dump, I figured I’d be brave and see what the band was up to for old time’s sake. Well, Reign of Gold isn’t a dumpster fire, and it seems the groove and metalcore influences have been shown the door. But is this a return to their glory days?
No it isn’t. Not even close. Reign of Gold is a professionally done Euro-power metal outing with a slight symphonic, Kamelot-esque element, led by Gus Monsanto (ex-Adagio, ex-Revolution Renaissance), a veteran vocalist with proven ability. The problem is that the music is very pedestrian and generic at its core. Early cut “Thunder” is a “highlight” of sorts, sounding somewhat exuberant and respectable, with a slightly catchy refrain and some Maiden-esque harmonies, and the title track is by-the-numbers power with another kinda-sorta memorable chorus. You won’t need to turn them off, but you likely won’t need to spin them again either. The album’s pacing poses additional issue as the mid-section consists of not one, not two, but three consecutive mid-tempo pieces and/or ballads. While “Lucifer’s Waltz” is solid, meaty and reminds me of Highland Glory, fellow plodder “Bullet of Betrayal” fares less well and and power ballad “Shining Light” adds to the slump, reducing the album’s energy quotient to a lethargic crawl.
The only song that really grabs me and reminds me of the good old days is “Martial Valor,” which has more oomph, grit and punch. It’s hardly a world beater of a song and I won’t be adding it to any playlists, but on this album it stands pretty tall. The biggest problem for me listening to Reign of Gold is recalling just how great those early albums were. It leaves me wondering what happened to the band that wrote such top-shelf material. How have they been reduced to writing such bland, nondescript material? I have no answers but lots of sadness.
Gus Monsanto does a solid job on vocals as he always does. He keeps much of his delivery in a burly mid-range and incorporates some grit and edge a la Jorn to keep things a wee bit edgy. He isn’t the kind of vocalist than can vastly elevate middling material, but he does his best with the hand he’s dealt. The guitar tandem of founding members Torsten Wolf and Volker Trost are more than capable musicians, but many of the riffs and harmonies here feel tired and recycled from every other power act of note. You get the Iron Maiden galloping harmonies, the occasional nod to the symphonic bombast of Kamelot, and some vague references to the heavier side of things like Iron Savior. Nothing they do truly jumps out and grabs my attention. Overall, this is a competent band delivering generic material the likes of which you’ve heard a million times before.
I hoped to return to the Human Fortress fold and find a happy surprise waiting for me. That didn’t happen, but at least they’re back playing the kind of music they once did well without trying to force groove and core ideas into the formula. Reign of Gold is overly restrained, largely forgettable power metal, but I’ve heard worse, and if you’re hard up for a power fix, your mileage may vary slightly. For my part I’ll be returning to the time when Human Fortress was money. You should do the same.1