The mid 90s through the early aughts were an awkward time for metal, what with the scourge of nu-metal and the residual fallout from the grunge explosion hobbling the genre. For lovers of adventurous prog-metal though, the era was a veritable treasure trove. With the relatively high-profile success of noodle lords Dream Theater, the gates were flung open for every wanky, masturbatory outfit to grab a 12-string guitar and the Complete Works of Genesis, and some label would support their worst excesses. Bands like Symphony X, Threshold and Vanden Plas found their audience and the modern prog-metal sound developed and evolved. In this maelstrom of artistic brilliance and conceit, I stumbled across Beyond the Stars, the sophomore outing by unsung German prog metallers, Ivory Tower. Though they weren’t doing anything Dream Theater hadn’t done 500 times bigger and with more drum solos, there was something oddly endearing and earnest about the band’s material. I never saw or heard about another release from them until Stronger bobbed up in the promo bin unexpectedly. I doubted it was even the same band, but it is indeed. This is actually their fifth album, and the first release since 2011. They’ve changed a lot since their Dream Theater aping days, that’s for sure. This is very aggressive prog-power with a truckload of balls, sounding like a mash up of Pyramaze, Symphony X and mid-period Vanden Plas, with some vintage Mercenary shoehorned in. This puts them dead center in the Wheelhouse ov Steel and the audience is most definitely listening.
And what you’ll hear on Stronger is an ambitious, high-octane take on prog-metal that goes for the throat as often as it goes for the earworm. This is a majorly talented band taking chances and really getting after it. Opener “The Offer” is plenty aggressive and surprisingly heavy, but man, do they go for those big hooks! Dirk Meyer leaves no room to doubt his vocal range, coming in with amazing high notes that would fracture a lesser man’s larynx, then as the riffs get meaty and thick, his delivery turns gritty and tough. The man has a big presence and adapts his approach to the tenor of the music admirably as the band shifts directions. And that chorus guarantees consideration for Song o’ the Year. It’s that good. “Loser” changes things up by opting for downtuned riffs and a simplified delivery that reminds just a bit of vintage Threshold, relying on big vocal hooks to guide things along. “End Transmission” is the album’s “single” and deserves the honor, sounding like a perfect blend of Vanden Plas and Pyramaze with just a touch of Jorn for extra cred. Dirk delivers another big performance and shows he can punch a song through to the promised land.
“In Me” sounds like a lost track from Mercenary‘s The Hours That Remain, but with guest vocals from Dennis DeYoung (Styx), and it’s an oddball charmer that will get under your skin. The album highlight arrives late in the game with “Passing,” and it’s a jaw dropper of a tune that borrows a lot from Anubis Gate‘s dark chest of wonders. Dirk does a stunning Daniel Heiman impression here, hitting the kinds of insanely high notes I thought were forever lost over the horizon.
Are there any downsides after so much winning? Maybe. The title track feels like a wrong turn into groove metal bro-core, with traces of Disturbed creeping in where they aren’t welcome, though it’s still an entertaining tune overall. “The Wolves You’ve Let In” is a solid, simmering power ballad, but it runs way too long at 7 minutes. Likewise, the album itself is a whopping hour and 16 minutes, though 6 of those minutes are dead air at the end of righteous closer “One Day.” That’s still a lot of high energy prog-power to digest regardless of quality, and I wish they’d chopped or tightened the aforementioned weaker moments, moving this closer to perfection in the process.
As talented as this band is, it’s Dirk Meyer that holds it all together. He’s like a more nuanced version of Stu Block (Iced Earth) mixed with Terje Harøy (Pyramaze), and though I never heard him sing a note until this album, he’s now one of my favorite singers in all of metal. He’s that good. His performance is all over the place and everything he does just works. He’s the kind of singer any prog-metal act would step over their own mother to recruit, and he takes the already high quality material to that next level. He’s backed by some major players, and Sven Böge’s wild fret-board gymnastics are a thing of beauty. He gets in some wild hair pulling fights with keyboardist Frank Fasold along the way, and the music is all the better for it. Excesses aside, this material is highly accessible, and the band puts the songs first, wanking only in the designated wanking zone, ensuring they don’t slough off listeners along the way.
Talk about a surprise hit out of left field! Stronger is kicking my ass all over town, and though I knew the old version of Ivory Tower, this one is a completely unrecognizable prog thug. If you’re a fan of prog-power or prog generally, you need to hear this. It’s got 4 heavy contenders for Song o’ the Year, and I simply cannot stop spinning it. Heavy, adventurous, infectious – this is a Tower you can call home.