The Greco-American Firewind are one of those bands who have always sort of slid by me on the periphery of cognizance for the duration of my metal listening life – if I ever paid them any mind, which was rarely, the thought usually manifested itself as “oh yeah, Firewind. Aren’t they that Century Media act who are sort of like Mercenary except not quite as good?” Or something like that. They’re the kind of damnably consistent modern metal act who put out an album more or less like clockwork once every couple of years, treading water artistically without ever quite becoming big enough to be unavoidable the same way as a Blind Guardian or a Children of Bodom or taking enough chances to catch the ear of a roving listener such as myself. Never let it be said though that I don’t take it upon myself to rectify my own blind spots, and it’s in that spirit that I plunged headlong into Few Against Many, Firewind’s seventh studio album, hoping to be pleasantly surprised.
Few Against Many, then, is an album that I find frustrating to articulate my problems with in a form that’s satisfying to me, in much the same way that I had trouble with Holy Grail’s Crisis in Utopia a couple of years ago. For all that I take pleasure in the myriad diverse and esoteric forms modern metal can take, at heart there’s nothing I enjoy more than old fashioned, red-blooded riffs n’ solos. My idea of a good time is an album that marries highly proficient musicianship and a crunchy modern production job with solid, traditional hook-laden songwriting and a healthy dose of epic or progressive tendencies. On paper, that pretty much describes Few Against Many to a “t”; so why is it then that I can fall in love with, say, Eumeria’s Rebel Mind while Firewind frequently grate on my nerves? Leaving aside the possibility that the former is unsigned and the latter is on Century Media, and I could be getting too underground-elitist for my own good?
It’s not that it’s generic – certainly, you’d be hard pressed to find a single musical phrase on Few Against Many that hasn’t been carved pretty deeply in stone over the last twenty years, but I’ve enjoyed recent albums by deliberate throwback bands like Steelwing and Cauldron which were far more conservative even than this one in terms of the ideas they brought to the table. Nor is it melodically inarticulate. Certainly, there are elements I could nitpick – there’s a definite prevalence of bad habits inherited from modern metalcore like the employment of momentum-cancelling bouts of stop/start chugging power chords, and vocalist Apollo Papathanasio isn’t the most inspiring frontman in the world, sounding a little like Jørn Lande in his lower register but lacking the Norwegian singer’s charisma and bravado. With that said though, Gus G., the band’s founding member and veteran of other power metal acts like Dream Evil and Mystic Prophecy (not to mention his current stint playing for Ozzy Osbourne), is simply one hell of a guitarist. In some respects, he reminds of Symphony X’s Michael Romeo; while less intense, he utilises similar fluid alternation between pounding chords and serpentine arpeggios, making for an abundance of sweet riffs. The solos are a consistent high point on the album; often played in duels with keyboardist Bob Katsionis, they reconcile acute melodicism with up-tempo shredding and liven up songs wherever they appear.
The thing is, these songs frequently need to be livened up. The bulk of the fault in Few Against Many, I decided, lies in the songwriting; it’s not that the album suffers from a lack of energy, but rather that what energy is here feels diffuse and without direction. Much like their contemporaries Trivium (remember them? They were kind of a big deal six or seven years ago. How times change), Firewind exhibit an awareness of the archetypal modes of heavy metal songs – the soaring, triumphant ode; the fist-pumping anthem; the angry, kinetic attack – but an unwillingness to fully commit to any of them, swithering from one to the other like a shopper who can’t decide which end of the mall they need to visit.
The results are songs that feel comprised of one-size-fits-all modern metal components without much regard paid to their use in service of a larger purpose. Opener Wall of Sound drifts between a bouncy, party-ish vibe in its verse and a gritty, full throttle riff in its bridge; Losing My Mind transitions arbitrarily from a faintly grunge-inflected slow burn to a punchy metalcore flavoured chug; Another Dimension moves bizarrely from an honest-to-God full blown thrash riff to a twinkly, ethereal Euro-power chorus. Also, Gus G. may be a good soloist, but when every song is outfitted with the same uniform style of speed picking virtuosity, it stops being energising and starts being perfunctory, as if “up-tempo solo section about two-thirds of the way through” is a mandatory point on Firewind’s songwriting checklist. It’s not that this lack of focus is jarring – the transitions aren’t severe enough for that – but it is disheartening, like Firewind stuck all of the requisite parts of a modern metal album in a blender and produced so much grey mush, with all of the constituent nutrients and vitamins but none of the flavour. The one song I can credit with picking a distinctive mood and sticking with it is the ballad Edge of a Dream featuring the cellists of Apocalyptica as guests, successfully hitting a dark, brooding vibe.
For all that I’ve moaned, I didn’t actively dislike Few Against Many; it’s too obviously the product of competent musicianship and honest good intentions. There’s nothing on here that even approaches the obnoxiousness and insipidity of most modern metalcore. All the same, it’s just dull. Neither sweet nor savoury, without much in the way of gravitas and drama, or of high spirits and a sense of fun, there was scarcely a moment here where I wasn’t longing to listen to a band like Hibria or Lost Horizon, anthemic power metal acts who write passionate songs that feel like they make a statement rather than merely being built according to IKEA specifications.
1 Wall of Sound
2 Losing My Mind
3 Few Against Many
4 The Undying Fire
5 Another Dimension
7 Edge of a Dream
9 Long Gone Tomorrow
10 No Heroes, No Sinners
11 Battleborn (Bonus Track)