Heehee. Just look at that bastard up there. Take it in. DIG it.
Just looking at it makes the 14-year-old in me giggle. It makes the adult smile knowingly.
Full Disclosure 1*: I started listening to metal in the mid 80s. Maybe it’s the music itself, maybe my (then) adolescent intensity, but that will always be “true” metal to me; anything else is an offshoot from the family line, so to speak. I am extraordinarily biased towards this kind of music. Take note.
Although they’re clearly not old enough also have started listening at that time, Pasadena’s Holy Grail clearly feel the same way about Metal. Metal, Capital M.
Last spring they released a 4-song EP, Improper Burial. The brand new Crisis in Utopia is their debut full length LP. Want the microreview? In a nutshell:
80s-era Queensryche covering Judas Priest’s Painkiller in its entirety.
This either means very little to you or it means TOTAL AWESOMENESS.
And it is, my friends. It is totally awesome.
Lookit, I can be the impartial judge of an album’s merits, the balanced, steely-eyed adult; I can also be the fan, the 14-year-old metal worshiper. The trick is being both.
Crisis in Utopia is good time, goosebump-getting, top down, drive fast music, not angsty death/black metal. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; at the right time, I loves me some Watain and Marduk.) If you’re in a bad mood, this’ll cheer you up. In a good one? This’ll make it great.
The first thing you hear is the production; two songs from Improper Burial, “Immortal Man” and “Fight to Kill,” have been re-recorded, with some minor re-arrangements, and they sound much denser and clearer– I clearly understood lyrics I couldn’t quite make out before, and the guitars were so dense I thought Holy Grail had detuned; I checked: they haven’t. (No more than they already had, anyway.) The mix is just that much thicker.
Just like (good) 80s metal, every song on here is powerful, yet memorable. I can hum every song on this thing. Fans of Nevermore would dig this.
On the lyrical content continuum, Holy Grail are closer to Judas Priest (things leather and steel, also swords) than the other end, Queensryche (graduate student introspection). Singer James Luna can actually sing, and really sing, and sounds like Tate, Halford, Dickinson, Dio, or Steve Grimmet (Grim Reaper)– with a modern twist of raspy howls as background vocals.
Also: solos! That are actually necessary! That are well thought out, complete musical phrases that seem integral to the song, not just mindless noodling, or the obligatory ”[insert guitarist's name] demands a solo” part. Like Alex Skolnick’s or Glen Tipton’s, the solos add interesting sections to songs that would actually suffer without them. (I know, right?! Imagine.) They make me want to actually learn to play the solos, rather than make up my own. (The last time that happened was on “First Strike is Deadly” in 1987.) There’s arpeggios, there’s doubled sweep-picking (which would be fucking SWEET if they do it live), there’s basically everything to make Paul Gilbert and Marty Friedman suck it, and suck it hard.
“My Last Attack” is the anthemic opener that sets the tone for the rest of the album; it sounds like Iron Maiden if the guitar player were in control of song writing instead of the bassist.
My favorite track off this (and the EP), “Fight to Kill,” is Manowar meets early Metallica with some Sanctuary thrown in.
“Call of Valhalla” is late-80s Hollywood sleaze rock like Junkyard (with Saxon writing the lyrics), but strangely works, and “Immortal Man” rocks its own nuts off, like Accept with another singer. The title track is the best song Queensryche never wrote, but with a modern tempo and more low end.
“Nocturne in D minor” (a quiet, classically-influenced, Yes-like interlude) segues into “The Blackest Night” (remember that from the 80s/early 90s? The always-present acoustic intro? Totally works here). Blackest Night works on its own, but has echoes of early Flotsam & Jetsam.
Unfortunately, the album’s problems are also just like 80s metal: the second side is noticeably weaker than the first (I’m looking at you, Grim Reaper’s Rock You To Hell!); I can practically see the cassette of this thing in my first car, having worn out the first side, but not so much the second: “Requiem” opens and closes with a cool doomy Candlemass-esque riff, but the middle is dull and seems like filler.
Cherish Disdain, the album closer, lifts things back up, though, and makes a suitably-epic-yet-bittersweet close.
The overall impression you’re left with is that there are actually songs here, with a great sense of dynamics, tempo and tension and resolution; you forget that most metal doesn’t do that anymore. Too, it doesn’t matter how much they do or don’t want to copy 80s sounds– you either have an ability to write songs or you don’t.
Holy Grail definitely does.
And don’t let my constant 80s comparisons lead you to think Holy Grail are completely derivative; they’re definitely inspired by traditional and thrash metal, but there are consistent modern twists that make this an update to that sound, a reinterpretation, rather than a complete retread.
But yeah, there’s no perfectly-distinct Holy Grail sound. Yet. When they find that sound and settle into it, no one will be able to touch them.
As they evolve, we can rock the fuck out with this one.
Adult’s Final Score: 7.5/10
Metal Worshiper’s Final Score: 10/10
*Full disclosure 2: Last spring I ordered Holy Grail’s debut EP, Improper Burial from the band themselves, and singer James P. Luna emailed me to see if I’d gotten it. I’m sure they’re too big for that now and all, but it definitely made an impression on me.
PS Crisis in Utopia doesn’t include the two covers from the Improper Burial EP, Accept’s Fast as a Shark, and Exciter’s Exciter. They alone make it worth buying too.