Talk to anyone who knows me and they would tell you that I'm a massive geek. I tell it to people myself. It's something I'm proud of. I'm geeky about games, films, TV, books and (obviously) music. I love getting lost in a sub genre of Metal and experiencing a style of music at its purest, but most complicated levels. I love listening for the composition, the production, the genre conventions and everything that makes a particular song/album/gig special. You've probably noticed how in depth my reviews go, simply because I love listening to every part of a piece of music.
Up until recently I've been all over the djent/progressive Metal scene. I love listening for the rhythms, the production, the intricate nature of the music. But it wasn't always progressive noodlings that have piqued my interest. No, not at all. My base level of Metal geekness (is that a word?) stems from power Metal.
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Yes, power Metal is where it all really started for me. Since I first heard the seminal 'Keeper Of The Seven Keys' by Helloween, I've been a massive lover of anything power Metal. From Sonata Arctica to Hammerfall, Blind Guardian to Cellador, I've listened to the lot and loved it all.
This leads me on to today's subject, Firewind. Back in 2006, I bought a copy of their breakthrough album 'Allegiance' and loved it back to front. It was pure, uncluttered power Metal with a slight speed bent and it was fantastic. Now, I haven't heard their intervening albums, but when I was given the opportunity to review their brand new release, 'Few Against Many', I jumped at the chance.
However, my elation was subdued quickly into my first listening session when it became clear that Firewind have evolved from their power Metal roots. The Greek quintet have changed their core sound over the last six years, getting heavier and less and less like a power Metal band.
The change was jarring to say the least. The opening synth and guitar stabs at the beginning of 'Wall Of Sound' were a perfect indication of things to come. Guitarist Gus G has clearly learned something from being in Ozzy Osbourne's band as the song is based around a riff so full of groove and pentatonic wanderings you could mistake it for a Zakk Wylde creation. He even drops in some massive pinch harmonics.
Fortunately though, by the time the chorus comes in, things get a bit more power Metally, with Apollo Papathanasio's multilayered vocals pushing out to the top of his register and sounding wonderfully glorious all at the same time.
As you move through the album, things start to get very Symphony-X, the title track in particular showing off what the band can do technically, especially from Gus, with a mix of chunky, fast paced riffs and intricate tapped/arpeggiated riffs sitting under multi-tracked vocals and half time drumming. In fact, the chorus of 'Few Against Many' is very reminiscent of Symphony-X's 'Eve Of Seduction'.
As you would expect for the guy currently shredding for the Prince Of Darkness, Gus G is a phenomenal player and in reality, Firewind is his baby so he can do pretty much what he wants. The lead work is phenomenal, the amount of notes he can pull from his fingers is amazing. It's not all self-indulgent fret-wankery though, he knows when to keep it fast and when to keep it melodic (for the most part, anyway). The solo for the title track is slower, more considered and absolutely beautiful.
For me though, the riffs aren't what I have come to expect from him. They're very derivative and a little bit uninspired. Taking his cues from the likes of Michael Romeo (Symphony-X) and the Amott bros (Arch Enemy), there are a lot of influences from other areas of the modern Metal scene. It's not something I go especially looking for, but it's inescapable sometimes when you hear a riff and can instantly place another band or guitarist.
Since getting the Ozzy gig, Gus G has been elevated to the level of a guitar hero, but it's not just about creative shredding, the riffs need to be good and original too.
What separates Firewind apart though is the use of Bob Katsionis on the keyboards. For the majority of the time, he keeps things very subtle; a little piano here, a little choir there, but he does get plenty of opportunities to cut loose. His key searing solo in 'Another Dimension' is absolutely brilliant and genuinely brought a smile to my face.
I would say though, he is criminally underused in the band, with Gus G having such a huge sound, there generally isn't a lot of space for Katsionis to shine forward when he really does deserve it. Other power Metal bands manage to incorporate keyboards and guitars in equal measure (take Sonata Arctica or Alestorm) so there really is no reason that they can't afford the same luxury within Firewind.
Apollo Papathanasio's vocals are what I would class as over produced. He has a wonderful, powerfully rich voice but everywhere (except the verse of 'Edge Of A Dream') he is tracked two to eight times and it's really not necessary.
Dragonforce proved years ago that many tracks don't make a performance better. It's very hard to judge the vocal performance when there is so many of them going on at any given point. As a credit to him, the choruses sound epic and he carries the power well. In fact, the vocals completely turn around 'Wall Of Sound' for me and it becomes very catchy.
The best vocals on the album for me would have to be the ballad 'Edge Of A Dream', which also features the cello stylings of Apocalyptica. The tracks swells and builds all at Apollo's behest, he really does make that song one of the most evocative pieces on the album.
Well, before Gus G ruins it with a high gain, shred fest of a solo. Less said about that the better, really.
Underpinning the thundering sound of the band is a solid rhythm section in bassist Petros Christodoulidis and drummer Johan Nunez. Surprisingly enough for a band like this, the bass is audible, even on headphones. Petros can be pretty much constantly heard with the clang and rumble of his bass most prominent on my favourite track of the album, 'Destiny'.
Performance wise, it's a perfect fit. Whereas Gus G gets incredibly complex and intricate with some of his riffs, Petros keeps things simpler and makes sure there is always a rhythmic constant underneath everything else that's going on. He has his space and he fits into it perfectly.
Nunez as a drummer is brilliant. Mixing enough fills and performance moments with a solid and tight beat, he keeps things interesting without getting overly complicated or needlessly flashy. He makes full use of his kit, from the toms and kick opener to 'Few Against Many' to the double kick rampage of 'Another Dimension' right through to the subtle, light verses on 'No Heroes, No Sinners', he guides the band with effortless skill and keeps everything dynamically on the right track.
'Few Against Many' leaves me in a bit of a quandary. I know every band will evolve to a degree and over time, musicians get different influences and move in different ways through their respective lives, but I kind of feel that Firewind have turned an odd corner with this album. They wear their influences on their sleeves more than any band I can think of at the moment, which I think is the problem. They don't sound much like the Firewind I fell in love with six years ago.
Don't get me wrong, this is far from a bad album, there are plenty of sing along moments, some great musical work and some fantastic moments if you're a guitar fan, but it's over produced and unimaginative and unfortunately, quite generic by their own standards.
In closing, 'Few Against Many' is a good album. Just not as good as I hoped it would be.