Steel Prophet has endured an up and down career of late. They started life as a highly prolific heavy metal band sounding like a cross between Queensrÿche and Iced Earth, churning out 7 albums between 1995 and 2004. Then they fell completely silent until 2014s surprise comeback album, Omniscient. It was a respectable reunion outing and it had me hoping the Prophet was back in a late career groove. Then another four long years went by without a peep and I assumed they were dead in the water again, until album number nine The God Machine arrived unexpectedly. Featuring a tweaked lineup, long time singer Rick Mythiasin is regrettably missing in action, replaced by R.D. Liapakis (Mystic Prophecy). The sound is different as well, merging the classic Steel Prophet style with a less proggy, more linear, anthemic approach with some weird surprises. It doesn’t always work, but few things in life do.
Out of the gate the band shows their hand with the aggressive and urgent attack of the title track. It’s an in-your-face stomper in the mold of Iced Earth and recent Jag Panzer. It sounds more like what I’d expect from Mystic Prophecy than Steel Prophet, but enough of their writing style shines through present thanks to founding member Steve Kachinsky and his signature guitar-work. It’s a fist pumping anthem that manages to sound modern while keeping the ancient torch of traditional metal burning brightly, and Liapakis proves he can man the mic with authority. Followup “Crucify” is more of the same, providing urgent energy and a huge, catchy chorus as Kachinsky adds exclamation points with slick riffing and solos. “Thrashed Relentlessly” is another win, stealing Iced Earth‘s lunch money with a hard-edged broadside that gives way to a big, satisfying chorus.
Then the album takes an odd turn into Jørn-friendly, bluesy hard rock, with the next four cuts all utilizing this unexpected approach. None of the songs are bad per se, just completely out of sync with the opening trio of metallic anthems and more importantly, Steel Prophet‘s historic output. For example, “Dark Mask (Between Love and Hate)” could sit on any Jørn album, most White Snake releases, and all Tony Martin era Black Sabbath platters for that matter. “Buried and Broken” takes the White Snake even further down the rat hole, sounding like something Tawny Kitaen should be writhing on a car to. The harder stuff does make a comeback on the album’s final third, with “Lucifer – The Devil Inside” and ” Fight, Kill” offering more punch and potency, but only the former leaves a lasting impression. The album closes out with a large-caliber shot to the foot on “Life = Love = God Machine,” which sounds like a reject from the 1979 Paul Stanley solo album, but with Paul’s vocals replaced by Lord Jørn for reasons unknown. This confusing mix of straight forward macho metal and mellow hard rock makes The God Machine an odd duck of a different color and leaves me wondering exactly what the band was going for here.
The addition of R.D. Liapakis definitely changes the Steel Prophet sound. Instead of the high-pitched vocal gymnastics Rick Mythiasin brought to the table, Liapakis sounds like Stu Block mixed with Jørn and Bruce Dickinson. He’s plenty convincing on the opening cuts and handles the hard rock material quite well too. He’s a legitimately talented front man and he isn’t the problem here. Instead it’s the wildly scattered song writing that hurts the album most. Steel Prophet always had a winning style mixing heaviness with melody and a slight proggy sensibility, making albums like Messiah and Book of the Dead slick, accessible listens with balls. That formula is mostly missing here, and in its place we hear a band flailing around, grasping for some kind of identity. This is a shame as they’re a very of talented crew. Steve Kachinsky is an ace guitarist, and along with new axe Jon Paget he crafts some impressive string-work. The final product just doesn’t sound much like Steel Prophet and the band spends way too much wading in the AOR end of the pool, killing the overall impact of the album.
The God Machine is a study in contradictions and a bit of an enigma. The band can still create quality music, and even their extended foray into hard rock is done respectably. It just doesn’t come across as a cohesive metal album. It seems the band is struggling to find their new direction even as they fight to keep going as an entity, what with the long breaks and chronic lineup instability. With those issues factored in, they should be proud this turned out as listenable as it did. If the rest of the album hit with the same force as the first few songs, I’d be raving and ranting about it. Maybe next time. If there is a next time. I hope so.