2017 has been a challenging year for Steel‘s favorite prog-minded bands. Pyramaze tried to craft a movie soundtrack of a metal album and crashed on a reef in the treacherous Michael Bay, and Anubis Gate opted for a heavier, darker sound that felt awkward and unrefined. Knowing Threshold had a massive double album inbound filled me with trepidation and worry this downward trend would never get reversed. And Legends of the Shires is nothing if not long, clocking in at over 1 hour and 22 minutes (2 discs, 3 LPs). On top of this, vocalist Damian Wilson jumped ship, to be replaced by former Threshold frontman, Glynn Morgan, who we haven’t heard from since 1994s Psychedelicatessen album. With a daunting run-time and multiple tracks exceeding the 10-minute mark, restraint was obviously jettisoned even before the empty coffee cups from the initial writing session, and “editing” and “trimming” were forbidden concepts. Sounds like a recipe for a big, steaming mess, right? Luckily for us, Threshold is so damn talented because very few bands could pull something like this off as well as they do, throwing Yes and Pink Floyd influences in with 80s commercial rock to make their metal consomme.
Things commence with the soft acoustic rock interlude “The Shire (Part 1)” where we get to hear Glynn grace a somber piece that seems to be about the optimism with which we all face life’s possibilities when young. It’s a concise, interesting little number with an emotional performance from Glynn. This segues into the album’s “single,” “Small Dark Lines” which is classic Threshold – heavy, riffy, and super-catchy but still steeped in prog sensibilities. This is the most immediate cut here and exactly the kind of song I want from the band. After that slice of crisp, concise prog-metal they drop the nearly 12-minute “The Man Who Saw Through Time” upon us. It’s a good song full of melancholy moods and surprisingly understated playing, but it also feels overlong and it could easily have been trimmed by 3-5 minutes.
The album does well to mix tempos and moods, with more aggressive, punchy tracks like “Trust the Process” and “Snowblind” offsetting rock-oriented, catchy cuts like the hooky “Superior Machine” and “State of Independence.” The big standouts to my ears are “Subliminal Freeways” which is like a mix of metal, gloomy post-rock and I hate to say it, Mike and the Mechanics. It shouldn’t work but it totally does. Mega-long “Lost in Translation” is also surprisingly listenable thanks to a heavy dose of Pink Floyd dynamics and a killer performance by Glynn which slathers the whole thing with pathos and emotion. Sure, it could stand trimming, but it goes by fairly quickly as is.
What strikes me hardest is the Shire Trilogy, with “(Part 1)” addressing youthful optimism, and “(Part 2)” finding the protagonist older and growing overwhelmed by life’s struggles and tribulations, losing the hopefulness and confidence of youth as reality grinds him down. “(Part 3)” concludes on a slightly upbeat note that speaks of the resignation of advanced age. It’s depressing as hell but will likely resonate with anyone over 40.
The biggest surprise is that with so much music, no song feels like disposable filler. The closest things get is “On the Edge,” which is a bit tepid, but it has an interesting chorus and the heaviness provides a useful tempo shift. Even the super poppy “Stars and Satellites” manages to work, though it feels like it fell off a Japanese-only Mike and the Mechanics EP.
As you might expect, the biggest complaint is the song-length. There are multiple cuts that would be strengthened by judicious trimming and snipping. I know prog is by definition an over-the-top, unrestrained style, but even so, there’s no reason for a song to run 7-8 minutes when it’s essentially a slick 5-minute song puffed up by wank (albeit the tasteful variety), as is the case on “Trust the Process” and “Stars and Satellites.” Sound-wise things are great with a slick, clean production. Long though this certainly is, I’m able to to listen to this all the way though and enjoy it, which is saying something.
I wasn’t very familiar with Glynn’s era with the band, but he sounds quite a bit like Andrew “Mac” McDermott (R.I.P.) who was my favorite Threshold singer. He has the perfect voice for prog-metal, with plenty of clarity, range and power at his disposal. He’s a more than capable replacement for Damian Wilson and I really love his performance on the more emotive pieces like the Shire Trilogy. Founding guitarist extraordinaire, Karl Groom does his magic once again, mixing crunchy, heavy riffs with polished, classy leads and proggy noodling without ever giving the listener Ramen poisoning. With Richard West (ex-Dragonforce, Power Quest) handling keyboards, the sound is filled out ably without ever sounding cheesy or silly. Such a talented damn band!
Threshold have been one of the most dependable and consistent prog-metal bands for decades and their winning streak continues with Legends of the Shires. It isn’t the heaviest or the most tightly written platter, but it’s chock full of accessible, interesting music and songs that will keep you coming back. Scour this shire if you want a rewarding double dose of proggy goodness.