“Rage had a unique contribution to metal and was a throwback to the golden age of melodic heavy metal in the best possible sense of that word. These guys carried the torch proudly and […] they did it with a creative, idiosyncratic flare that made them as big as they did become,” wrote AMG himself in a premature and not-dead-yet type of eulogy in February 2015. A year and some change after the attempted disbandment, Rage, or rather mastermind Peter “Peavy” Wagner and two of his fresh henchmen, are back with new material along with grand ideas of a reinvigorated, back-to-the-roots energy and a rediscovered heaviness. Ominous promises that have in the end proven true for The Devil Strikes Again.
Because Rage’s 22nd album really does have more in common with their earlier recordings, such as The Missing Link and Black in Mind, than with anything they’ve made in the meantime, for better or for worse. The Devil Strikes Again is a raw, speedy, and unashamedly simple record built around crunchy, aggressive riffs, and a thrashy take on power/heavy metal that traverses straightforward structures born from a chorus-based formula. Gone are the neoclassical and progressive traits, gone are the orchestrations and any semblances of romanticism in the songwriting. While many might not agree, those elements more often than not enriched Rage’s style and helped them craft an intriguing sound (e.g. String to a Web). As a result, The Devil Strikes Again sounds like a flatter, inferior attempt that also lacks the exuberant, pleasantly catchy, and jump-inducing spices introduced during the Smolski/Terrana era (Unity, Soundchaser, Speak of the Dead). Rather, it opts for a darker, tormented theme that seems to exist in a curious dichotomy with the mood of the music.
To make matters worse and unlike Rage’s releases from the eighties and nineties, the simplicity in songwriting isn’t supported by a required, inversely proportional level of inspiration and instead becomes a burden. Having expunged the problematic element named “Smolski” from the band—Wagner doesn’t seem to joke as he rasps “My way or the highway, it’s heaven or hell” on the unbearably cheesy “My Way”— the band’s path has been reset and remodeled. But there’s an unfilled hole where Smolski’s guitar and influences lay. In hindsight, these circumstances might help explain how the ten solid but disappointing tracks on The Devil Strikes Again came to be. All of them very similar, of almost metronomic, short length, and left without room for progressions or developments. Few songs are worth mentioning among this bunch. “War” and the title track are presented as hardened arena rockers, “Ocean Full of Tears” would be a top-notch scorcher were it not for the furiously over the top chorusing, and “Times of Darkness” proves that Wagner can still write a good near-ballad. The eastern melodies infused in “The Dark Side of the Sun” show what a long way a little variation can take you and as such stands opposite to the mediocre mess that is “Back on Track” that not even a charming, if somewhat uninspired guitar solo can salvage. In all of these songs, heaviness makes a comeback but it can’t escape feeling hollow and strained, as if without a proper framework.
Musicianship-wise, Rage are still an impressive band. Wagner’s vocals are as pleasant as ever in their imperfections, and while guitarist Marcos Rodríguez and drummer Vassilios “Lucky” Maniatopoulos lack some of the finesse or flamboyancy of musicians such as Smolski, Terrana, and Hilgers, they fit their roles and simplified structural positions effectively, churning out relatively interesting riffs and direct, uncomplicated rhythmical patterns. It would be quite unfair to blame either of them of holding the band back. Finally, the production, mixing and mastering (courtesy of Dan Swanö) are reminiscent of the band’s previous record, 21, with Wagner’s bass pushed to the back, but with a generally pleasant, full, and well-defined sound that gives priority to the riffing without overwriting vocals and drums.
In the end, The Devil Strikes Again makes for a solid, yet frustrating release built on almost arena rock propositions but lacking catchy, memorable songs. While some fans will be happy to hear their favorite metallers going back to basics, AMG’s perception of a quirky and, at times, refreshing band might truly be dead.