Monday, 22 October 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Ashes of Ares, “Well of Souls”

By: Richard Maw & Nathan Harrison

Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: 09/11/2018
Label: Rock of Angels Records

“Well of Souls” CD//DD track listing:

1. Consuming The Mana
2. The Alien
3. Unworthy
4. Soul Searcher
5. Sun Dragon
6. Transcending
7. Let All Despair
8. In The Darkness
9. Spirit Of Man
10. Time Traveler
11. The God Of War
Bonus Track:
12. You Know My Name

The Review:

Ashes of Ares, for those unaware, is the band formed by Iced Earth alumni Matt Barlow and Freddie Vidales. As such, you could have a fair idea of what to expect; power metal with prog/thrash/trad influences and no small amount of bombast and vocal histrionics. That's not to be flippant either: Matt Barlow may just be the best heavy metal vocalist alive. His range, emotive power and delivery are just awe inspiring. The band's 2013 debut saw the band as a confirmed trio with Van Williams (Nevermore) on drums. Van returns here but as a guest rather than a full time member. His performance is fantastic and he showcases a lot of his trademark off kilter rhythms and polyrhythms as well as a killer sound.

The sound and production is perhaps more epic than the first record- definite prog influences and elements abound. There is straightforward metal, lots of soloing and all around impressive musicianship. There are eleven tracks that make up the main album and a rather unexpected and touching tribute to Chris Cornell in the closing cover of "You Know My Name”.

The first album dealt with themes of justice, punishment, faith and death- due in no small part to Barlow's main career in law enforcement. In many ways, it's good to know that many musicians these days also do real work for a living, just like the rest of us- some, like Barlow, in more demanding jobs than most. It's a credit to him that he has kept making music. It can't be easy.

We thought it appropriate for an album of this depth and complexity to bring some discussion into the mix. Nathan Harrison, vocalist for The Human Condition and MAJOR Barlow fanatic seemed the logical choice. What follows is our take on each track, the state of metal and anything else which seemed to be relevant:

“Consuming the Mana”

RM: The intro made for an interesting start; dramatic, perhaps even overblown with its synthesised orchestration. I can see it being used as an intro tape (or digital equivalent) for the live gigs that I REALLY hope the band play. As soon as the main track kicks in, though... wow. What a sound. Fantastic production and playing. Barlow's vocals are as soaring as ever and he seems to utilise the layering recording technique that he used on some of Iced Earth albums to great effect. I like the drums of Williams as he sounds like no one else- a really technical and individual player.

NH: Overblown certainly isn’t a bad thing and this intro from Jonah Weingarten (who recently made a rather excellent album of cinematic music with Barlow on vocals under the name We Are Sentinels) certainly sets the epic tone for the album.  Every time I press play on something new featuring Matt Barlow, I expect to hear a change to his voice that can only be expected from a singer nearing fifty years old but no – as usual he is powerful and commanding, lungs surely bursting with the emotion, range and iconic power that hasn’t changed one iota since his first release with Iced Earth over 20 years ago.

This track knocks it out of the park in every sense – the layered vocals wind around polyrhythmic drums and a good mix of solid riffing and proggy shredding. It certainly gets the record off to a flying start!

“The Alien”

RM: This is a much more straightforward proposition. No intro, just straight in there with a melodic metal master class. I am going to guess from the drum sound that replacements/electronic kit was used. The drums sound incredible and you can hear the echo of the toms and so on. I have no issue with this for this kind of music; you NEED to hear everything and fortunately the drummer is unique, so this does not become a sterile exercise in perfection. I like this track a lot- it is heavy metal in a very advanced form.

NH: This song veers between the epic and the brutal. Barlow’s highs soar in the background under his earth-rumbling lows, framed by monstrous riffing before heading into a double-kick stampede which can’t help but induce some serious fist-pumping. While it’s not a theme that I can directly identify with, Barlow is undeniably frank and sincere in the way he sings about (what I interpret as) his religious beliefs here.

“The Unworthy”

RM: Now this is a track that sounds like it could have jumped straight off the band's debut! It's dark and heavy and one of the best tracks on the album. Powerful stuff and the use of Barlow's lower register is excellent.

NH: I agree – this definitely has elements of ‘What I Am’ or ‘This Is My Hell’ from album one. It offers more of a focus on Barlow’s vocals than any other track on the album, his lower range sounding like its being pushed through a throat full of razor blades whilst still sounding massive and imposing. My only complaint is that the arrangement of this track (the guitar has a few moments where it is very much at the forefront) does show that the guitar sound isn’t quite as rounded as the first album. It sounds a little too trebly to me, whereas the previous releases’ sound had that attack that cut across whilst still maintaining a bit of weight at the bottom end. An otherwise great track.

“Soul Searcher”

RM: So, here we have the first ballad of the album. Musically, this is close to Iced Earth- and may be an acquired taste for some. For some UK listeners this may seem a little overwrought and a little too earnest; but it is not too far away from Alter Bridge who are huge over here. For me, one of the cool things about the debut was that the band didn't just deliver ten identikit tracks and they instead covered a fair bit of ground. For me, this is a different side to the band and one that gives the album more dynamic range. Ballads are not to everyone's taste- I know that- but “Soul Searcher” is a well written song and its presence reminds me that those involved in this record are elder statesmen of the metal world; ballads were very much de rigeur on every album I bought when I first got into metal, so this is a nice continuation of that tradition.

NH: Barlow’s emotional range is really on show here – he turns on a dime from hurt and vulnerable to raging and livid. The lyrical content is direct – there’s very little in the way of imagery and metaphor here. This is a simple song about being betrayed by a loved one and it works beautifully. While it is a ballad, it certainly isn’t short on impact. And anyone who, as you say, Richard, is into their more ‘classic’ metal albums won’t feel that this is out of place – what would “Empire” be without ‘Silent Lucidity’? What would “Sad Wings of Destiny” be without ‘Dreamer Deceiver’? This song provides the dynamic range required for an album of this scope and scale.

“Sun Dragon”

RM: Well, if you don't like ballads, don't worry! This one is pure molten metal fury. Sitting somewhere on the Priest-in-their-“Painkiller”-period trajectory, this is as heavy as lead and just as deadly. It's fast and furious and rocks like a bastard. Yes!

NH: Yup, this one is certainly a contrast. Those high notes at the beginning! Fans of a good old fashioned Halford style heavy metal scream will NOT be disappointed by the first few seconds of this one. It certainly is heavy but manages to pack an epic melody into its chorus. A balance like that is difficult to achieve – now they’re just showing off!


RM: This is equally heavy but with some more dynamics thrown in. Five minutes of metal goodness with some excellent soloing. This is superlative heavy/power metal. Exactly the kind of sound I was looking for from the band.

NH: Again, a slightly doomy sensibility here, but overlayed with furious tub thumping from Van Williams which is then overlayed by equally frenetic picking from Freddie Vidales. Solid as a rock throughout.

“Let All Despair”

RM: Here we have some prime storytelling from Barlow et al. Similar to their Alma mater, this marks the start of a trilogy of songs which link together and form a story arc based around the album's title. Now, as such I wasn't expecting three thrashing metal tracks- I expected a more measured approach that allowed for ebb and flow and changes in emotion. “Let All Despair” delivers exactly that. We are now entering an arena of more involved listening and “concept.” To get the most out of it it needs to be absorbed and listened to... carefully.

NH: This might just be my favourite track on the album – the atmosphere it builds over the course of its five minute running time is just stunning. A similar refrain repeats throughout, but each time there is more there until it reaches a beautiful crescendo before slowly fading away, those layered vocals showing just how effective they can be when paired with the cracking musicianship of the rest of the band. It certainly works as the first part of the trilogy it forms with the following two tracks.

“In The Darkness”

RM: This one sounds how I expected from the title; dark and foreboding. Again, musically it would fit right into the debut but as the central track in a linked trilogy it has to fit with this musical suite. I think it does- it progresses the story of the “Well of Souls” and features really good performances from Barlow and Vidales. I got the impression that they put a lot into these three tracks to make them hang together and progress almost as if the three tracks were one piece.

NH: This track has a fantastic, unrelenting, stomping rhythm to it which mixes perfectly with the lyrical theme of impending and inexorable death and destruction. However, both the vocals and the guitar are given space to be heard and appreciated over this – the drums form the ideal backing for the listener to understand what the song is trying to say. Top notch.

“Spirit of Man”

RM: This one concludes the “Well of Souls” Trilogy and starts off dark- for me, the dark sound of AOA is one of their major plus points. They don't sound like anyone else. Once again- much like Iced Earth- there is no mistaking that this band comes from anywhere other than the US of A. The delivery is serious and no tongues are in cheeks here. UK listeners, used to a more nuanced approach, may find the lack of irony disturbing... but this is metal. Proper metal. It's supposed to be serious and seriously bombastic. As a concluding track for the trilogy this works very well as it finishes the story. However, the pick of the three linked tracks would be “In The Darkness” for me.

NH: Taken together, these three tracks are certainly the stand out part of the album – perhaps a sign that a concept album may be the next logical step for Ashes of Ares? They certainly have the epic sound for it and Barlow has enough storytelling experience from his time with Iced Earth, whose albums almost always have at least an overarching theme if not a full blown concept. Every bit of light and shade that could be expected from a concept album can be found across roughly 15 minutes of music and it is done masterfully. ‘Spirit of Man’ makes for a perfect dénouement, veering from frenetic, almost scatter-gun vocals to a huge chorus leading into a sonically packed conclusion which ends in a suitably abrupt fashion.

“Time Traveller”

RM: This one is pure sci-fi set to power metal. This one could be an example of how to get the genre just right. It's heavy, speedy in places, the vocals soar and offers up a dead-straight hammer blow after the more complex trilogy it follows. Sci-fi and metal go together really well (just ask Blaze Bayley) and this is a great example of how evocative the imagery can be.

NH: That chorus though! Simple but effective would be the best way to sum up both the chorus and the song as a whole. And, yes, sci-fi/fantasy themes will always work with heavy metal – I’ll say it again: concept album please, Matt!

“The God of War”

RM: Barlow and Vidales get things just right here. This is dark, menacing and the perfect closing statement. Again, there are echoes of the debut here and this is masterful metal. The genre does not get much better. Riffs, time changes, multi tracked vocals and a theme that is as universal as it is terrifying. What a track!

NH: Vidales gets his doom on again for the fuzzy intro riff – Barlow’s soft vocals that open up this otherwise pummelling track contrast very nicely. This one is a slow builder – the first minute and fourty-five seconds act as a perfectly menacing prelude to the sonically rich main feature. This is an absolute stand out on an album of wall-to-wall quality.

“You Know My Name”

RM: I liked Chris Cornell (and Soundgarden) and I like Bond films... is this track needed on an Ashes of Ares album? Of course not. Is it a nice tribute? Yes. It is a bonus track; a cover done well, earnestly and is exactly what I expected. It's not out of place exactly, but it never could have been included in the main track list.

NH: When taken as a bonus track, separate from the main thrust of the album this is a good bit of fun – the band rework it enough to make it their own whilst sticking to the original enough for it to be recognisable and maintain the spirit of Chris Cornell. Despite all the praise heaped on Casino Royale as a film, its theme tune is not often mentioned when discussions of Bond music arise. For me this is the joint best Bond theme (alongside A-ha’s ‘The Living Daylights’ – shhhh, it’s our little secret) so it’s good to see such great musicians giving it some attention. Also, it’s refreshing to hear a Cornell tribute that isn’t a tear-inducing version of ‘Black Hole Sun’ – this celebrates his life and work in a more fun way. A good choice all round.

...And there you have it. This record is sure to be one of the best metal releases of this year. Ashes of Ares have kept to the lofty standards of their first record and delivered another tour de force.  I've run out of superlatives to describe the musicianship on display here. We can only hope for live shows and await with interest who will fill out the live line up. This album is for all fans of true heavy metal. Outstanding.

“Well of Souls” is available for preorder HERE

Band info: facebook