In my early days of metal fandom, there was a period of roughly two years – spanning from the time I stumbled upon DragonForce‘s Inhuman Rampage to when I began exploring Darkthrone‘s discography – where I listened to nothing except for power metal and thrash. During this period, as I worked on my sloppy renditions of “Eagle Fly Free” and “Battery” on a cheap Yamaha electric guitar my parents picked up at a department store, I had an epiphany: why the fuck hasn’t anyone mashed up the two best genres in the world? Sure, hybrids of these genres have long existed, but from Iced Earth to Cellador, no band managed to lean hard enough in both directions to satisfy my craving for this elusive duality. I wanted music that evoked unicorns donned with denim saddles slamming cheap beers. I wanted anti-war lyrics delivered by denizens of Middle Earth. And now – nearly fifteen years later – Paladin’s debut delivers. Even after a decade-plus of evolving taste, Ascension feels like everything I’ve ever wanted.
It’s been said that the opening sentence of any book is vital to hooking the reader. In keeping with this philosophy, the opening bars of “Awakening” command attention with an intoxicating flurry of soaring Lost Horizon guitar harmonies and sharp, party thrash riffs reminiscent of Ironbound-era Overkill. As an opener, this track is an excellent pick, but its focus on power metal acrobatics veils a more varied experience waiting immediately beyond. It doesn’t take long for Paladin to begin tinkering with its immediately successful formula, and while Ascension never loses sight of its Euro-power hooks or Bay Area attitude, elements of melodic death metal inject a welcome dose of aggression and dynamism. Paladin executes each stylistic shift with the utmost conviction, making for a record where every second feels engaging.
While most cuts represent a melding of genres, Paladin manages to divide their influences across Ascension in a way that makes each track unique. “Awakening” and “Black Omen” most heavily explore the band’s power metal side; “Call of the Night” and “Shoot for the Sun,” conversely, are more purely thrash oriented. Yet many of the best tracks here are odd ducks which find Paladin experimenting with more aggressive tones and unconventional structures. “Divine Providence,” for instance, trades off weighty melodeath gallops with Exmortus-esque neoclassical noodling. Elsewhere, “Bury the Light” splices tight, prog-power lead work with deliciously wicked, Skeletonwitch-inspired verses. Ascension’s most ambitious accomplishment by a wide margin, though, is closer “Genesis,” a mid-paced stomper that explores plodding doom riffs and blackened accents in its back half. At six minutes, “Genesis” is the record’s longest track, and feels infinitely more compelling than the longform closing numbers which plague modern power metal.
Ascension’s genre-hopping nature demands a varied vocalist, and guitarist Taylor Washington is fully capable of handling both clean and harsh vocals with skill and confidence. His clean singing can remind of Protest the Hero’s Rody Walker or Rhapsody’s Fabio Lione depending on the circumstances, while his vile, commanding growls recall the tone ex-Skeletonwitch frontman Chance Garnette. His guitar work, alongside that of co-guitarist Alex Parra, is impressively taut and harmony-rich, while the countless rhythmic change-ups and smart cymbal accents from drummer Nathan McKinney further elevate Paladin’s dynamic nature. It’s a shame those accents sound thin in the mix, but aside from diminished cymbals and kicks, Ascension makes for a reasonably balanced example of the modern metal production style. The important thing is that such a guitar-centric record has a solid guitar sound, and the strings here sound excellent, with strong, clear tones bolstering the impact and precision of both the low and high end.
It takes an exceedingly rare breed of record to capture the hearts of a majority of the AMG staff, let alone one that falls within the realm of power metal. Yet as word of Ascension spread through the offices, it quickly became the first staff-wide favorite in the genre that I can recall since Unleash the Archers dropped Apex two years ago. I realize that I’m one of the few power metal pushers on staff here, and that a 4.0 coming from me means absolutely nothing to non-devotees. Yet Paladin’s genre-bending wizardy transcends fandom, making for a level of accessible, exuberant fun that i haven’t encountered since last year’s Necropanther album. I’ve already resolved to make Ascension the go-to soundtrack for my summer. I suggest you do the same, lest you find yourself out of the loop come list season.