A few years ago, I started to wonder where I made the leap – that little step up from Metallica and Megadeth into the more cult classics, and eventually USPM, when everything around me was the polar opposite. Moving from India to the UK as a teenager changed the landscape, but not really the attitudes around me. Whilst continental Europe seemed to refuse to let heavy metal die, across the pond (where my idols once ruled) the situation seemed grim, with grunge and college-rock taking centre-stage. Overall, growing up in the late 90s to 00s, true heavy metal seemed old-fashioned – a dying art.
We are so spoilt for heavy metal now. The decade past has seen such a huge resurgence of high-quality heavy metal that I can scarcely keep up with it all, particularly a burgeoning young North American scene – Eternal Champion, Visigoth and Gatekeeper are a few names that instantly spring to mind. I got to thinking about those American bands that really kept the fire burning, with their resilience, or uniqueness – or in many cases, both – and started to make a little chronology of some of these great flag-bearers, to seek out their thoughts on key releases. They were all asked the same questions – to reflect on the musical climate at the time of release, and to discuss reception then, and in more recent years.
As with all my writing, there is an element of self-indulgence. Whilst this might not be *the* list, it is certainly *my* little list, and thanks to the internet, social media, and kind friends I have been able to pick the brains of some of my musical heroes, to whom I am indebted for their time and patience.
1. Steel Prophet – Dark Hallucinations (1999, Nuclear Blast)
For a band that had been around for a fair bit with a string of demos and two respectable full-lengths, this album delivers a red-hot slab of heavy metal that will just break your neck for days. You want huge ball-busting drum lines? You got ‘em. Intricate lead work bleeding into chunky riffs? Right there. Dickensonian vocals with tight harmonies (and screams that would perhaps challenge the man himself)? They deliver that too. Oh, and a weird Fahrenheit 451 inspired dystopian lyrical concept? You can have that as well! And they only go ahead and cover Fates chuffing Warning – and nail it.
A shining light in a dark time for heavy metal – if this does not scream ‘modern classic’ to you then… well, I just don’t trust you.
Steve Kachinsky (guitars) was kind enough to talk me through the bleak heavy metal scene of the late 90s, and the events around the release, during a wee chat in March 2018.
I think the musical climate was fairly barren for metal in the late 90s. We put out a couple albums in the mid 90s on a small label called Brainstorm Division, and they were fairly well received. I noticed in 1997 when we put out Into the Void (Hallucinogenic Conception), Hammerfall had just released their debut album, and they were getting a lot of positive reactions. Iced Earth was putting out good albums, and then there were the bands doing pretty good self releases, like Zero Hour. Helloween was a big name still putting out quality music. Nevermore was getting some attention as well, but mostly it was death metal, grunge and toothless pop music. Maiden and Priest had lost their frontmen, and were kind of floundering with the Ripper and Blaze Bayley. Some of the death metal was good, but mostly it had nothing to do with the classic power metal style. So that’s how I remember the context of the time.
Dark Hallucinations got a really good reception at the time! A lot of people liked it, but it was not happy Euro metal, which was just starting to gain traction. Unfortunately for us the timing of the release coincided with Bruce rejoining Iron Maiden, so they kind of stole our momentary spotlight. We toured with Gamma Ray and Edguy for the album in Europe, which was good for us. In the end though our style was more of a niche market. Today, it’s hard to say what the reception is. I rarely hear people talk about albums from that time period; seems the focus is always on what is coming out now, or soon.
It still hasn’t come out on vinyl yet, but it sold very well at the time and still enjoys some digital downloads. I hear from some people who consider it a classic and think of us as one of the few bands that kept the genre alive in the 90s. I remember thinking we were making something pretty good until we turned in the album, and Nuclear Blast promptly sent us back to a different studio to remix it. I still like the original mix better, but the sound quality is better on the released version. The Fahrenheit 451 concept was good for us, but the out of sequence song order threw off some people. Using blast beats with classic metal melodies and harmonies was a pretty original thing at the time. The songs just kind of came together. I wrote all of my instrumental contributions (about seven songs) literally in one day, and the lyrics followed the next day in a few hours. I remember being influenced by Mercyful Fate and Omen a little bit on some songs, and Randy Rhoads and Alan Holdsworth for some of the solos. It’s one of my favorites for sure.
2. Jacobs Dream – Jacobs Dream (2000, Metal Blade)
As arbitrary as this may seem, to me this album has always marked the end of an era – one last glorious, old-fashioned USPM album. It’s hard to believe that this was written as late as it was, given the strong songwriting, monster solos, and vocal skill that easily matches that of Geoff Tate or even Midnight. Two decades on, I continue to consider the vast majority of what came after it to be ‘new’.
John Berry (guitars) kindly shared an intriguing reflection on this relatively buried jewel of American power metal, in a brief conversation in December 2019.
We wrote much of our self-titled release in the years 1998-2000. When we played our demo for people, often the reaction was “that’s a lot of guitar solos isn’t it?”. In those post-grunge years hard rock music in the States was leaning heavily on technology like never before, and away from guitar riffs and melodies. And that was when fate smiled upon us. When we signed our record deal we were not very experienced as songwriters. We now needed to draw out every bit of inspiration we could muster. Our roots in ‘70s and ‘80s rock and metal were just about all we had to lean on since the current music environment left us largely unimpressed. We would soon find out that some music critics would be less than impressed with our brand of traditional metal. We didn’t even know the bands that they said we were ripping off with both hands, or that the terms “true metal” or “power metal” even existed. All we knew was what we liked.
Even then our musical tastes often led us in different directions. For some bands this is a blessing; for us it was both a blessing and a curse, in that we often struggled to find common ground. In the end though, much to our surprise, we crafted an album that resonated with metal fans around the world.
TP: Out of interest, do you see yourselves as the last of the old guard, or pioneers of the new?
Put us in the vein of the old guard. Not because of our age or longevity, but because we never adapted to the flavor of the month of metal. We never modeled ourselves after any current sound.
3. Twisted Tower Dire – Crest of the Martyrs (2003, Remedy Records)
To not mention Twisted Tower Dire on this list would of course be negligent – just look at the talent that has been involved in the history of the band. Indeed, the real struggle was whether to go with Crest of the Martyrs or The Isle of Hydra, as I think they both stand out to me as huge releases in the ‘void’ years of heavy metal. I went with Crest, I think because if there ever was a love letter to ‘true metal’ in its darkest hour then this was probably it. Each song has such an anthemic feel to it, conjuring up images of a front row with friends, fists in the air, uniting the world in heavy metal.
In these crazy times we’re living in, I find myself shedding a tear as I listen to these lyrics that have taken on new poignancy for me – I miss you, my wonderful heavy metal family!
We’ve brethren in England, Germany and Spain
Forged in the truest fires
Many fall to their blades
We know many Greek warriors
Much too many to name
And the fight is undying in the home of the brave
Scott Waldrop (guitars) shared some thoughts with me in conversations over the last couple of years.
We’d been around eight years when Crest came out in 2003, so we started the band at the lowest point of “real metal”. At that time there was this whole new “power metal” thing going on, and we got marketed into that. It was a good time for that genre, but from what I’ve seen the popularity of “traditional metal” ebbs and flows. I think at the end of the day, metal at its roots will be timeless – genres like death, doom, thrash, power, etc; these seem to be sustainable genres that age and recycle well. All the bastardized versions of the genre tend to wind up getting forgotten for the most part.
The new climate for this music seems as good as it ever was after the early ‘80s, and it’s beautiful to see these younger bands playing it with passion and intention; it kind of shows that there’s magic to this music that strikes a chord across generations. Sonically and aesthetically it speaks to people on a pretty deep level. That sounds kind of ridiculous having grown up in the ‘80s when this stuff was so sensationalized, but I believe it’s true.
Clearly there is something pure, translative, and unique about traditional metal culture which makes it endure fickle trends and even the short attention span of the information age. I think true metal has always been alive and well in the hearts of its creators and fans; I don’t see its appeal waning in the near future.
TP: Tom Phillips talks about it being real victory when albums like The Isle of Hydra were released with any fanfare at all. Would you then say that this was more of an uphill struggle album than Crest?
I don’t know how it felt from an outside perspective. What I remember at the time is that we were finally getting really tight as a band, as a group of friends, as songwriters, and as a gang of dudes in general haha. I think I speak for all of TTD by saying that we knew we were writing center material when we were writing Hydra. We spent the time and money to record it correctly because we believe in ourselves, so obviously we believed it could gain some attention. But by the same token, it’s really a unique and special circumstance when any music or art gets publicly recognized on any level beyond what the artist considers to be superficial.
4. Cea Serin – …Where Memories Combine… (2004, Heaven Cross Records)
Not USPM by any stretch of the imagination, but I simply don’t see how I could omit this from any list of life-changing records. As a teenager, I had cocooned myself in ideas of what I thought I liked, and shunned and mocked that which I thought I didn’t. Musical discussion both in real life and on the internet was so rooted in genres and specifics. This unique record simply blew away those labels in music for me. I couldn’t define it but I loved it, and it changed my whole attitude towards metal – a baptism into musical adulthood.
J Lamm, the genius behind the band, talks me through the US scene at the time, and the reception of the debut.
The musical climate at the time of Cea Serin‘s debut release was much more conducive to progressive metal but not necessarily melodic death metal. At that time – especially back when we were just releasing demos – there weren’t a lot of bands combining death metal growls and clean singing. There were Opeth, Gardenian, and a couple of other bands doing it, but not many. So, the prog-metal crowd liked the music but not the vocals; the death metal crowd liked most of the fast songs but maybe not the complexity.
Regardless of trying to find our audience, the album was received very favorably by most critics. I think it was because it was just very different. We weren’t another Dream Theater clone. It’s very different for us over here in the States – particularly being from Louisiana. Where we live, there is the New Orleans scene that has/had bands like Eyehategod, Acid Bath, Goatwhore, Down. Obviously, we don’t fit with bands like those. It was always hard for us to play gigs here because there weren’t many bands that we could play gigs with and the audience wasn’t very interested in this style of music. We could always get rebooked to play shows but it was always in front of the same crowd over and over again.
At the time, there were a lot more melodic metal bands coming out and trying to make a mark. I remember listening to a lot of bands like Elegy, Eldritch, Seventhsign, Edwin Dare, Conception, etc. We came out around the tail-end of that season, I think. I also think that during that time people were more marginalized in what they liked. I find that now people are more likely to have a wider field of interests when it comes to genres of metal.
It’s hard to gauge the difference in reception for us then and now. Back then there were a lot of magazines, fanzines, e-zines, message boards, etc. I find there’s less of those things now and I’m not too interested in searching out what people think of the most recent Cea Serin release. People will send me reviews from time to time, and that’s great, but today I’m less likely to seek out reviews to see how we’re doing.
5. Pharaoh – The Longest Night (2006, Cruz del Sur Music)
This was one of those rare albums I discovered right around the time of its release (rather than digging backwards – gets worse by the year!). Summer 2006, I was at Wacken festival – young, reckless and rather taken with a tall, handsome European. We gushed endlessly about our love for Queensryche and Savatage – all to this amazing mix-CD of feel good heavy metal. Two songs stand out in my memory: Axel Rudi Pell – Carousel (lol!), and Pharaoh – By the Night Sky. Of course I went home with a copy of this summer-love album, and to this day I can play it, close my eyes and relive the dizzying freedom of youth.
Beyond nostalgia value though, it was my first little toe-dip in the waters of what is now the mighty ocean of traditional heavy metal – Cruz del Sur Music – a label that has since delivered some of the greatest releases of our time, and one that I am proud to have worked with.
And almost a decade after its release, a mutual love for the album (and the desire to drunkenly sing along to it rather badly) led to another important friendship – that with O.W.K., my USPM mentor and font of all metal knowledge.
Thanks to Professor Black for putting me in touch with Matt Johnsen, who was incredibly generous with his time and insights in our emails from October 2019.
When Pharaoh first started, in 1997, there were very few bands in the US playing a similar kind of music, and frankly, most of the ones I knew about were not very good. In general, the metal climate in the US before Pharaoh formed was very hostile to melodic vocals, and there wasn’t much enthusiasm for either traditional (i.e. 80s-style) metal or European power metal (Blind Guardian were largely unknown in the US, for instance, and they had already released five albums!). That said, in 1997 the debut album from Hammerfall was released in the States, and the first Iron Savior album came out around the same time (on a recently reactivated branch of Noise Records), and pretty quickly, the US scene remembered that there was more to metal than Pantera and Machine Head. The first Powermad festival happened in 1997, and while that fest was perennially under-attended, it led directly to the creation of ProgPower US in 2001. The third edition of that fest, in 2002, brought Edguy, Angra, Blind Guardian, and Gamma Ray to the States for the first time, so when our album came out a few months later, it would be hard to claim that the US was not open to our kind of music.
But, Pharaoh was an underground band on an Italian label, and while people were finally starting to appreciate the broad style of music we were playing, not many people ever even heard of us. We did much better in Europe, of course, and the German press in particular loved us. From talking to a lot of journalists, I learned that part of the appeal was that we seemed to come out of nowhere. While Chris had been active with Dawnbringer for a while, he wasn’t the underground household name he is now. And Tim should have been better known from the Control Denied album, a lot of Death fans really, really didn’t like that Chuck handed over the mic to someone else, and of course, when Chuck died, it felt in a lot of ways like the world agreed to more or less forget about Control Denied (which is a pity). And we didn’t really make a demo, either, at least nothing that was widely released, so when Cruz del Sur finally put out After the Fire, it was a real event for the Europeans who never really gave up on the kind of music we play. We did a lot of press and scored a lot of very good reviews, and the album sold well, at least as far as we and the label were concerned.
So that’s the mise-en-scène as we open on Act II of the Pharaoh story. After the Fire was released in 2003, but we were done writing it by 2000 or so – it just took us a long time to get our act together and record it, plus there was some trouble with the label: we were originally signed to Icarus Records in Argentina, but when that country’s economy collapsed in ‘99, Enrico Leccese (one of the Icarus guys) left for his native Italy and basically took Pharaoh with him, starting Cruz del Sur in the process. I had already been writing for the second album before the first came out, and I personally felt really inspired. Before Pharaoh I hadn’t really been in a proper band since high school, and while I was always playing guitar and writing riffs, it wasn’t until I had the outlet of Pharaoh that I got serious about writing actual songs. Chris’s original concept for Pharaoh was very traditional – Iron Maiden and Saxon, basically – but I was very deep into European power metal by the early 90s; bands like Scanner, Rage, Blind Guardian, Secrecy, and so on, and that was the kind of music I really wanted to make. So I was pushing Pharaoh in that direction (while also leaning in a progressive direction, as I was very involved in the prog metal scene of the late 90s), while the Chrises were both still pretty focused on the Maiden sound.
We also started our relationship with Matt Crooks, who produced The Longest Night and everything we’ve done since, and that relationship basically led to Pharaoh having limitless time in the studio. Matt didn’t charge us by the hour, he just took all of our advance and told us he’d do what it took to make the record. He probably regrets setting that precedent now, ha ha! It’s not like we went full Pink Floyd and spent a year holed up in Matt’s basement studio, but we at least didn’t feel any pressure to rush anything. We experimented in the studio, and made a lot of adjustments to the songs as we recorded. And when it came time to mix, we tried to find a balance between a slavishly “old school” sound and the buzzy modern sound that was coming to dominate almost everything coming out of Europe. All of this combined to produce an album that sounded fairly different from most others that were being released at the time, even within the same style.
When we finished The Longest Night, we knew it was good. There wasn’t any self-doubt; none of us even considered the possibility that our new album wasn’t as good as the first one. We had all got better as writers and musicians, we had teamed up with a better engineer to make the album, and we were the flagship band on Cruz del Sur. The European press ate it up – they fucking loved it. We were getting 9s and 10s from the biggest mags. Some of that, I think, is a “grass is always greener” effect: the Germans always loved US metal more than their native stuff, and US metal is exactly what we made, when there were not many other bands here even trying. In the US, meanwhile, I think people were a little less excited by this kind of music than they were even three or four years earlier, and of course we were still a band that didn’t tour, on a foreign label with not-very-good distro in the US. We did well in the underground scene, but in the US, you kind of have to tour to grow your name recognition, and that was never on the cards for Pharaoh. We didn’t even play our first show until after the third album was released, and that show was in Germany!
So in the States, I think the album is mostly forgotten by now, except by die-hards. In Germany, it’s still a bit of a touchstone for fans of the style. Plus, our third album was an even greater shift away from the purely 80s-inspired sound that we started with, so while the European press has been very kind to Pharaoh for every album, The Longest Night remains the preferred Pharaoh album for a lot of people (including Enrico!). And that’s okay! I don’t want to make that album again, but I know that it means a lot to a lot of people, and it defined the “Pharaoh sound” for many. Because of that, I’d never want to put out an album that didn’t recall The Longest Night in some way. Maybe in the 70s, a band could reinvent themselves every album (see: Queen) and hold onto their fans, but that’s not really how it works anymore. Pharaoh is a certain kind of band, and if we don’t deliver an album that meets a baseline set of expectations about what a Pharaoh album should sound like, people are just not going to buy it, no matter how good it is. But as far as I know, we all still like that sound, we’re all still proud of The Longest Night, and even if we never make people as happy again as we did with that album, my hope is that we never break their hearts.
6. While Heaven Wept – Vast Oceans Lachrymose (2009, Cruz del Sur Music)
I am almost at a loss as to how I can describe what this album means to me. Much as Jacobs Dream marks the end of something, Vast Oceans Lachrymose in my mind ushers in a new era of heavy metal, which, amongst other things, saw the popularity of epic metal blossom, and for me, personally, a new phase of growth and depth. What can I say, other than on first listen, the music brought me to my knees, the lyrics moved me to tears – a perfect blend of power and doom, a marriage of old and new. A record yet to be topped, in my humble opinion.
And who better to tell the tale of struggle than the vastly talented Tom Phillips, during this September 2019 chat.
Although Vast Oceans Lachrymose became one of the most talked about albums of 2009 – much to our surprise – and in many ways defined the struggles of existing within the musical black void of the 90s/early 00s, it did not come out of nowhere. If anything it was more of a testament to resilience. Rather, it was our earlier albums Sorrow Of The Angels (1998) and the door-opening Of Empires Forlorn (2003) that came out during the real “dark ages”, when metal had for all intents and purposes been shunned by even its once greatest proponents. That’s when we were all deep in the underground keeping the fires burning.
And that’s the thing; regardless of what was happening in the “overground” – grunge, the rise of hip-hop, saccharine and plastic vocal pop – the underground was only growing stronger. Mind you, it was primarily the death metal scene that really exploded and offered an alternative to that other bullshit that corporations (and even former heroes) were trying to force upon us. But there were long-running bands that never gave up, such as Manilla Road and Brocas Helm, still soldiering onward. I remember when we started Twisted Tower Dire in the mid-90s feeling shocked and relieved when we discovered there were other like minds out there, like Slough Feg. You have to understand that for a lot of people it was all about being more brutal, more extreme, more everything; clean singing was largely shunned, until Hammerfall came along and people realized they missed melody/the old days above this sub-underground.
For bands like While Heaven Wept, Solstice (UK), Solitude Aeturnus, as well as our more Sabbathy counterparts (i.e. the doom metal bands, not the death/doom bands), hell, we ultimately existed in a dark corner of the sub-underground in a lot of ways. I remember when WHW started at the end of the 80s, there were about as many bands out there as you could fit on a CD compilation… maybe two discs if you stretched the parameters a bit. But here’s the thing: we didn’t care about what was happening above or around us, we simply channeled the music that came naturally.
And yeah, it was a fucking victory when things like Of Empires Forlorn or New Dark Age or Isle Of Hydra came out with ANY fanfare… but it was also incredibly surprising.
By the time we did Vast Oceans Lachrymose, the entire geography of the industry had changed again so there wasn’t quite the same adversity. The internet had grown too; grass roots webzines, forums, and festivals had sprung up everywhere.
For us, VOL was more like walking through the doors that really opened with Empires – or maybe it was like the doors being blown off forever – but the point is, it was just us playing sincerely from the heart and soul as we’d always done, regardless of trends or opinions of friend and foe alike. So as always, the REAL success was completing the album with some semblance of translating what we actually felt in the heart. That’s the only thing that matters. Of course it was amazing to see the reactions being nearly universally positive, above and below ground, but none of that really matters in the end. The fact that a decade later people still cherish this album as much as the day it came out is a miracle, but in the end, it was Empires that was the true victory during the years of void!