Britain’s Shadowkeep lay more or less dormant for seven or eight years following 2008’s The Hourglass Effect, which itself was delayed due to line-up changes. This oft-contracted plague of metal bands received a cure in January of 2017 when none other than James Rivera of Helstar stepped forward and offered his services as the voice of the band for its long-awaited self-titled fourth studio album. As something of a fan of Shadowkeep’s earlier work, and especially The Hourglass Effect, I was interested to see what James would bring to the table in a setting other than Helstar (a band I’m admittedly not overly fond of).
Many of Shadowkeep’s more inexpert edges were smoothed out on The Hourglass Effect, and the music continued to develop a Germanic power/speed character founded on the likes of (very) early Helloween and Grave Digger. With the addition of Rivera’s vocals, the speed metal aspects are emphasized further, and Shadowkeep presents a noticeable aggression, compared to its more subdued predecessor. Dual guitar harmony and driving, riff-based rhythmic work remains the order of the day, but musical builds and vocal swells are built as much or more around Rivera’s screams than they are the hooky choruses of Richie Wycks’ days with the band. Thematically, Shadowkeep is focused on Greek mythology, and stories of other Mediterranean cultures with the exception of “Never Forgotten,” which offers instead an homage to the British soldiers of World War II.
Unfortunately, the combination of the vocal changes, melodic phrasing, and lyrical imagery sees Shadowkeep treading dangerously close at times to sounding like “just another epic heavy metal band.” Songs like “Horse of War” and “Isolation” sound like rote compositions from a band trying to flesh out yet another batch of Greco-Roman inspired songs. In stark contrast, “Immortal Drifter” is varied, pummeling, and strikingly memorable in both its instrumentation and vocal hooks. The child-like “Little Lion” seems curiously out of place at first, but I eventually found its gentler vocal approach and gently shifting arpeggios to be a welcome break from many of the more neck-snapping offerings featured throughout the album.
Shadowkeep is, as an album, dead consistent in its instrumental quality. The rhythm guitar has tremendous tone and is expectedly prominent from end to end. “Angels and Omens” and the gnashing instrumental “Sword of Damocles” are standouts where guitarists Chris Allen and Nicki Robson are permitted to run particularly wild. Other tracks are more one-dimensional in their guitar compositions, and as is often the case in this subgenre of power, rhythm lines from across songs bleed together into a less distinctive mass of only slightly varied riffing. Where James Rivera himself is concerned, there is very little to comment on. His vocals are strong, commanding, and followers of his material will eat his performance right up.
I personally find it to be a shame that Rivera dominates this album so much with his powerful, iconic delivery. The native character of Shadowkeep’s past compositions is stifled to a considerable degree, and I would contend that while fans of riffy, meaty power/speed metal are likely to enjoy this album a great deal, it has less originality and feels less like the Shadowkeep I remember. Maybe it’s all in my head, but multiple changes cause Shadowkeep to sound much more American (I get obvious moments of Helstar, but also some nods to Nevermore and Sanctuary) than the more Grave Digger/Paragon-esque Germanic moments from The Hourglass Effect and prior. I can’t classify this as a poor effort, to be sure, but I find the band’s new approach to be less fun and more monotonous. Obviously, it isn’t the case, but one could almost perceive the band as riding on Rivera’s coattails rather than exhibiting its own, previously proven musical capability.
Only now, as I draft this review, do I realize that this mildly disappointing album is being released on Pure Steel. Figures.