If you encountered me during my misspent youth as an 80s metalhead and asked if Shakespeare and metal went well together, I’d have pondered the question deeply for several seconds before hurling a half empty Schlitz can at you whilst cursing your ancestral line as posers and PMRC collaborators most foul. In the fullness of time I’ve come to realize the great English scribe’s body of work is, in fact, potent fodder for metal, teeming with sinister plots, betrayal, murder and war, sweet war. This pairing has been field tested with 2 concept albums based on Macbeth, one of which coming from German’s second-string grave exhumers, Rebellion. Now, 15 years after tackling that timeless story of kingly ambition run amok, they return to Shakespeare’s rarefied works to cover King Lear. An odd choice indeed, as Lear’s story lacks the sheer quantity of metal tropes of classics like Hamlet or Julius Caesar. Is this heady source material perhaps too advanced for a band usually specializing in tales of Viking conquest and wanton metalizing? A fair question, young scholars.
Out of the gate “A Fool’s Tale” shows a more cerebral side to Rebellion as they lay the foundation of Lear’s odd tale with a surprisingly sedate but smoldering number. Michael Seifert’s gravelly, bullfrog on Redbull vocals are much restrained at first, and there’s a nicely brooding atmosphere along with a catchy chorus and folksy bells and whistles. Of course you get some classic Rebellion Teutonic stormers as well, like “Dowerless Daughter” and “Storm and Tempest,” which work to get the blood flowing and the sword arm loose.
It’s the more adventurous tunes however, like the doomy and forlorn power-ballad “Thankless Child,” that pack the biggest wallop and emotional payoff. “The Mad Shall Lead the Blind” reveals some excellent and way out of character Pink Floyd-like guitar-work which resonates quite strongly. The biggest surprises come during the extra long but satisfying denouement, “Farewell,” where the band revels in dramatic pathos, veering into Savatage-esque piano-driven theatrics Jon Oliva himself would be proud of. These selections all make good use of a hitherto unknown serious side to Rebellion, and I find myself suitably impressed.
Some of Rebellion‘s best writing appears here, but not all their big ideas hit pay dirt. “Blood Against Blood” is a decent number weighed down by community theater grade voice acting, while “Truth Shall Prevail” is more voice-over than actual song, despite some inspired guitar interplay. This thing is also too long at over 1 hour. Look, I get that King Lear is a sprawling, epic tale, but if Slayer can cover “In a Gadda Da Vida” in just over 3 minutes, Lear too can be compressed into a manageable time frame. While the lyrics are often fairly well rendered, some are pretty awkward. The refrain of “you gave them the rod as you pulled your britches down” reoccurs in several songs, paraphrasing the original text, but less would have been more there for sure.
Seifert is one of those love or hate kind of front men. He’s spent his career emulating Grave Digger‘s Chris Boltendahl, and he lacks the sometimes useful ability to actually sing. Despite this, he goes all in, delivering an enthusiastic and at times impressive performance. On some songs he’s almost unrecognizable and he handles the serious material rather well. That said, he’s ultimately limited to growling, squawking, caterwauling and mewing, which in all fairness, King Lear does plenty of. Music-wise, this is easily Rebellion‘s most mature release with a lot of subtle guitar-work, folk instrumentation and emotive set pieces. Guitarists Oliver Geibig and Stephan Karut shine throughout, elevating their playing well above the usual gallop and crash of the genre, delivering some outstanding solo-work and moody noodling along with the required bruising riffage. There’s quite a bit of diversity musically and longtime fans will do double-takes on multiple tracks.
Shakespeare’s King Lear is a very ambitious outing for Rebellion, and they pull it off far better than I expected when I snagged this from the promo sump, cackling sardonically over the comedic gold this misbegotten concept would provide. Alas, all that glitters is not sump gold, and I’ve been deprived of a chance to properly savage this album. This may not be the typical balls to the walls fare that fans expect from these Krautrockers, but it’s entertaining, educational and pretty damn epic. Shakespeare would be scared and confused, but proud. Now get thee to a brewery!