Pharaoh – The Powers That Be Review

For a time it seemed Philly-based Pharaoh would be the vanguard of a new wave of gritty American traditional/power metal. Albums like The Longest Night and 2012s Bury the Light bristled with burly riffs and rough-hewn vocals, accentuated by super slick musicality and proggy elements. Their sound was like a gourmet mashup of Iron Maiden, Jag Panzer, Iced Earth, and Nevermore, and such a combination is almost certain to be entertaining if the band has the requisite chops to pull it off. With Professor Chris Black (Dawnbringer, High Spirits, Aktor, Superchrist) on drums, and Tim Aymar (Control Denied) leading the way, Pharaoh never wanted for sheer talent. After nearly nine years without a release, the band’s forward momentum is a thing of the distant past, but that doesn’t mean they can’t drop another barn burning dose of heavy metal thunder with fifth album The Powers That Be. So what has the long absence done to the band’s style and approach?

Not much as it turns out. The same blueprint is in effect, though at times there’s a slight tilt toward Symphony X-styled prog-power, and I hear a bit more of Dawnbringer’s retro sound lurking just below the surface. The opening title track has the classic Pharaoh sound but the arrangements hint at New Jersey’s greatest prog-metal band. It’s an adrenaline-charged ditty with a wealth of crunchy riffs, soaring leads and commanding vocals and I like it, but it’s not quite up to the standards set by the band’s past outings. “Will We Rise” course corrects quickly, with a hyper-urgent, extra punchy battle hymn featuring scads of glorious guitar work and powerhouse vocals. It fuses the classic Maiden gallop into a hyper-technical foundation of slick riffing and insane solo flourishes and it works a charm. Better still is the grim mood piece “Waiting to Drown,” which is like a marriage of Johnny Cash-style darkness to Nevermore’s dour theatrics. Witherfall attempted something similar on their recent album with the song “The River,” but this puts it to absolute shame. It’s a short piece, but it broods and bleeds more over it’s brief run than most 7-9 minute monstrosities could. In contrast, the harder “Lost in the Waves” builds gradually to an excellently epic chorus that will stick deep in your brain pocket.

The album settles into a groove as it rolls along, with a lot of the best stuff coming on the back half. One of my favorite moments is “Freedom” with it’s upbeat, mega-macho tale of fighting for freedom and liberty against all odds. If you spin this one and don’t get yourself a weapon with which to defend your independence, you are a sheep. Hell, there’s even a jaunty Running Wild-style riff phrase to enhance the throat cutting and Jolly Roger-ing. “Dying Sun” surprises with its combination of Nevermore-esque darkness and a noticeable Tad Morose feel to the writing and I really love the combination. While no songs fully stumble, the aforementioned title track isn’t as good as I expect from Pharaoh, and closer “I Can Hear Them,” though better, isn’t quite as exciting as the surrounding material, though it does grow with exposure. At 44 minutes, The Powers That Be is the ideal length and a very easy, engaging spin full of gripping performances by all involved. The tracks are reasonably trim and tight as well. The production suits the style, with Chris Black’s drums sounding thunderous and Tim Aymar’s vocals commanding centerstage without minimizing the phenomenal guitar-work from Matt Johnsen (Dawnbringer, Superchrist).

And about that guitar-work: Johnsen is a fucking monster on the fretboard. I’d forgotten just how impressive the guy is and how much I enjoy his style of playing. It’s so insanely fluid and smooth, yet holds more than enough brawn to do justice to the band’s aggressive, quasi-dark style. One memorable riff blends and bends into another giving the material a sense of evolution and vitality. The exceptional string slinging is paired well with Chris Black’s busy, technical kit work, making for a very active, enthralling listen. Over the top of it all roars Tim Aymar like a Viking Grizzly Bear. He’s got an exceptionally raw, raspy delivery that never seems to age or change, and he sounds great as usual (especially on “Waiting to Drown” and “Dying Sun”). A vocalist with a cleaner, more polished style wouldn’t impart the same coarse, hardscrabble edge Aymar does, and his voice is a prefect counterpoint to Johnsen’s pristine guitar-work.

This band is so damn talented, if the writing was just a little more consistent, they would have forced me to award my first 4.0 of 2021. Close, but no victory cigar. That said, The Powers That Be is an impressive, highly enjoyable comeback for Pharaoh and contains a few of their best songs to date. If you like your heavy metal ballsy, technical and full of trveness, Pharoah has some pyramids of power to sell you. Now please be more productive!

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Cruz Del Sur
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: June 18th, 2021

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