A Sound Of Thunder – The Lesser Key Of Solomon – Album Review

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So, less than a blink of an eye seems to have passed, and ASoT continue their prodigious output, with the release of their fourth full-length album, “The Lesser Key of Solomon” (henceforth TLKoS). Regular followers of the this site will know ASoT are local to the NoVA region and indeed are good friends of ours, however friendship be damned, when I started writing this blog I vowed several key ‘things’ that would keep this train on the rails, namely: pay for everything (gigs, CDs, whatever…), write what I believe and above all else be constructive. I’m mostly reminding myself, here, but it is clear that ASoT have reached a critical juncture in their forward progress. So let’s see where we are, eh?

The debut album, “Metal Renaissance”, was an impressive opening swipe that most almost any band would be proud to deliver and set a marker for what would follow, if not strictly a “blew me away” sort of album. However, what followed, “Out Of The Darkness”, was a monster and remains high on my play list. The blend of strong song writing, great playing/vocals and tight production, established ASoT as a true metal force. In fact I can’t point to a weak song on the album to this day. Skipping over the “Queen of Hell” EP, which itself was awesome, we come the previous release, “Time’s Arrow”, which I scored a riotous 9.5/10, and stated “this is the first must-have album of the year”. You can re-read that review here: http://wp.me/p2hj3p-33

So let’s get to the “main course” here and take a look at TLKoS. ASoT have penchant for longer tracks and albums clocking at almost exactly 60 minutes, and here TLKoS meets the criteria, delivering 10 tracks at 60 minutes… well, to be honest I’d really have to say 9 tracks and an “intro”. I don’t know when this came in vogue, but I’ve noticed the last Saxon album, the last Loudness album and now ASoT seem happy to devote a couple of minutes at the start of their album to some “composition” that clearly is destined to be used as the opening for their live show. So the album opens with the cryptically named “Nexus of Realities” which, as noted, seems likely to kick things off at live shows and I suppose does the same for the album here, but, would I miss it if it weren’t here? Nah, probably not. Perhaps I’m missing some cleaver creative twist?

What follows next, “Uduroth” is a great slice of power metal and follows very nicely in the tire tracks set in both Out of The Darkness and Time’s Arrow. The opening power cord and riff that follows is classic ASoT and for me takes some cues from “The Queen of Hell”, with massive, chanted backing vocals from the “Thunder Choir”. This is one of the shorter numbers on the record, clocking a respectable 4 minutes 32 seconds, and might be my favorite on the record.

Next up we have “Fortuneteller” and it is at this point I get to my first, “hmmm?” moment. Let me try to find some words to pad what “hmmm?” means – I think the best I can come up with is “I’m just not super excited”. The song is solid, the playing is solid, but I’m not being drawn in. It’s not engaging me and for once I’m slightly distracted by the production. There’s just a little too much double-tracking on the vocals, whispered vocal lines, and harmony stuff happening here there and everywhere. There’s also some odd keyboard things going on during the bridge before and after the solo, that I can only describe a bit like monkeys grunting… (Am I loosing it here?). Overall it just seems over-loaded in a way that Time’s Arrow wasn’t. To cap it all, I think the track could have easily finished around the 5-minute 25-second mark and had no less entertainment value. Wow, I am having a grump here you are probably thinking? To some extent that might be true, but then again, I have re-listened to the entire ASoT catalog perhaps 4 times or more straight through, in order to write this review and I think my feet are really on the ground here. I do really like the vocal bridge part that follows the guitar solo… but overall I can’t imagine this track working in a live setting and I think that is where I believe there is a divergence from what has come before – there isn’t a track on Out of the Darkness or Time’s Arrow that I wouldn’t be happy to hear on stage through a crankin’ PA system.

Moving on, next is the intriguingly titled “The Boy Who Could Fly”, which kicks off with a nice simple acoustic guitar, with Nina’s vocal floating over them with an almost ethereal vibe and very catchy melody throughout the song. Overall a very tasty and classy solo tops off the track. So you can put this one on the “winner” list.

Following on, we meet “Elijah” which is the longest track on the album, clocking in at 9 minutes and 30 seconds, which makes it the second longest track of the ASoT catalog behind “Time’s Arrow” (9mins 50secs). This is perhaps best described as a mini-opera, involving Elijah, his mother who has him trapped in the house and I think a ghost… who may just be “The Boy Who Could Fly”. Now, truth be told, this track is a grower, so give it time. The first few plays through it seemed to wash over me and came over a little disjointed, but as you start to absorb the story it gets inside your head and it all fits into place. Another winner.

Track six, “Master Of Pain” has a killer title, but just doesn’t quite live up to the potential – it’s just a little to “nice”, despite the lyrics. Again I am suspicious that there’s just a little too much in the production department happening, double-tracking, harmonies and so on. It needed to be nasty. More burning cauldrons of oil, nasty leather contraptions and painful devices. It needed to crush and I’m just feeling a little squished.

Again, with a perfect “10” score for the title of the track, “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb” had me filled with expectation and this time I’m closer to getting satisfaction. My one thought is this could have been so much heavier? I get an Iron Maiden vibe with the song title, but not the guitar/bass meat’n’potatoes…I needed a couple more clicks on the “meat” eq and an extra helping of potatoes here, or at least more bass guitar. Perhaps it’s the glockenspiel sort of keyboard (or is it tubular bell percussion?) part that pops up around the guitar solo that irks me? I’m nit picking, so don’t take this as anything other than constructive input.

“Black Secrets” opens with a Deep Purple-ish vibe from Josh’s on guitar, but is soon driven to a classic ASoT mid-paced stopper of a track and this could have probably been included on any of the preceding two releases. Following this comes “One Empty Grave” and again this is another track that I can’t imagine in a live set, but in the context of the album setting works nicely and is another “grower”. It kicks off, once you get past the intro, with another guitar part which again reminds me of recent Deep Purple, however in this case this theme continues deeper into the track, which is cool. I will note this is perhaps the first ASoT track that uses a fadeout to end the track.

The album closes with “House of Bones” which runs with an extended intro that takes about 1 min 40secs to get going at which point there’s another 50 seconds of jazz inspired guitar intro solo (very tasty) until finally the vocal kicks in. I’m not sure what the first 1 minute 40 seconds adds to the track? Personally I would have ditched it. The track itself is solid and includes quite a bit of ‘hammond’ organ, but then again keys and ASoT go hand-in-hand (for example take a listen to “The Day I Die” from Out of the Darkeness) and runs through a number of fairly crushing riffs on it’s way to it’s conclusion.

Of course you re-read my Time’s Arrow review didn’t you? Well, if you did, you may well be wondering where’s the gushing praise for Nina on vocals, and of course Josh, Jesse and Chris respectively on their instruments? Well everyone does a superb job, and essentially I’m just going to say all that I said previously still applies. The crux of this review revolves around the songs. Now I did miss one specific thing and that was the duet track – previously we have had John Gallagher from Raven on Out of the Darkness and Blaze Bayley (ex-Iron Maiden) on Time’s Arrow. I suppose you could argue that breaking the mold is a good thing and there are only so many vocalists worth trying that with, but I did enjoy the previous offerings.

To put this review in its place, I think this album represents maturation for ASoT and, as with all growth, there are points where there is some pain that comes with the process. Here, we have some gems that are easily equal to the best that have come before, but in my opinion (as a fan and supportive observer) we also have some ‘ok’ tracks. Nothing bad so banish that word from your mind, because it just doesn’t apply, but, may be experimentally some of the ideas just don’t hit the nail on the head. Close, but not square on.

So to close, should you buy this record? ABSOLUTELY. And doubly so if you are already an ASoT fan, but even if you are not, this is as good a place as any to start, but do be sure to sweep up the back catalog at the same time or soon after. To score this I’m comfortable with a very solid 8.5/10.

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