Scotland’s Gloryhammer, the new project of Alestorm keyboardist Christopher Bowes, have had their debut album’s release on Napalm Records heralded by a considerable degree of hype within the power metal community. Personally, I confess that my own interest in “Tales from the Kingdom of Fife” stems mainly from the novelty of a fantasy metal concept album taking place in a fictionalised version of the eponymous Scottish county (from which one side of my family hails and through which I was travelling by train when part of this review was written). Daft as it may be, there’s a certain amusement to be derived from lyrics about epic magical battles taking place in locales you’re familiar with in day-to-day life. It’s a poor reason to be invested in an album, or anything else for that matter, as I learned to my cost. Whatever zest was added by the recognition of place names was insufficient to elevate “Tales from the Kingdom of Fife” above the stature of an unremarkable and generic power metal record like hundreds of others.
With a central conceit as ludicrous as this one, it would be easy to assume that Bowes and crew’s intention was parody, but that’s not really what’s going on here. There is a certain self-conscious recognition of power metal tropes and archetypes, and a multitude of nods to recognisable fantasy metal touchstones. The liner notes feature images of hooded wizards similar to those adorning the covers of Helloween and Blind Guardian’s early work; the introductory track “Anstruther’s Dark Prophecy” features dramatic, artificially-deepened narration that calls to mind Byron Roberts of Bal-Sagoth. However, it’s all played with conviction and a total absence of mockery; more pastiche than parody, the tone is one of “yes, we know how silly and frivolous this is, and no, we don’t care.”
Musically, I applaud the ability to write songs that fully acknowledge and accept their own stereotypical nature – every track on here fulfils a prerequisite shape of European power metal so exactly that I wouldn’t be surprised if there actually was a checklist involved at some stage. “Silent Tears of Frozen Princess” is the obligatory ballad; “Amulet of Justice” is the speed metal throwback; “The Epic Rage of Furious Thunder” is the oversized ten-minute finale. Gloryhammer are honest if nothing else. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to write power metal in snarky / ironic /postmodern way, given how earnestness is a fundamental part of the genre’s genetic makeup, but the results almost certainly would have been toxic had they tried. Conceptually though, the lyrics would probably have benefited from more satirical bite. As it stands, they’re just sort of a goofy oddity, the story of the sorcerer Zargothrax conquering the city of Dundee and the hero Angus McFife searching for the relics necessary to dethrone him echoing the bottom-feeding high fantasy celebrated by Rhapsody of Fire and their legions of imitators. The only twist is the whole “alternate reality Scotland” conceit, but Gloryhammer don’t do anything with it. There’s no incorporation of actual Scottish history or culture or anything other than place names. Even geography is applied liberally – at one point, an army of evil unicorns attacking Dundee (…yeah, I know) is said to come “down from the mountains and across the River Tay.” Speaking as someone who lived in Dundee for some years, I would be fascinated to know which mountains those would be.
It’s a moot point anyway, because as honest as it may be, the music is mostly just kind of insipid. There are a couple of somewhat successful tracks; opener “The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee,” with a nice take on the classic metal three-note gallop tarted up with keyboard accompaniment and a preposterously catchy chorus (“Firebolts and lightning!/ARE RAINING FROM THE SKYYYY!”), and “Amulet of Justice” is a serviceable spin on the full-speed bombardment of classic Blind Guardian numbers like “Journey through the Dark.” “Hail to Crail” has its moments, although it’s let down somewhat by a perfunctory and lacklustre solo.
There are far more misses than hits though. “Angus McFife” and “Quest for the Hammer of Glory” both strive at mid-tempos to achieve an anthemic quality, but both fall into the same trap of repeating their choruses far too often, leaving them feeling flat and repetitious. “Magic Dragon” is seemingly designed to emulate Italian power metal in the style of Rhapsody of Fire, and falls prey to the same linear, uninteresting riffs (also, the opening melody is ripped straight from RoF’s “Queen of the Dark Horizon,” which was in turn lifted from Claudio Simonetti’s score for the 1985 horror film “Phenomena,” making “Magic Dragon” something of a second generation Xerox). “Silent Tears of Frozen Princess” – I think the band (founded by native speakers, I remind you) may actually be deliberately emulating the broken English typical of mainland European power metal – is as soggy and limp as all but the very best power ballads tend to be. Even “The Epic Rage of Furious Thunder,” for all its pomp and circumstance, still manages to feel rote and procedural, going through the motions of a track that could be described as “awesome” but never quite earning that qualification.
One consistent redeeming factor throughout is singer Thomas Winkler. “Tales from the Kingdom of Fife” relies more on his mid-range than his performance in his natural environs (that being in the thoroughly underrated Swiss act Emerald), but his sharp enunciation, clear, ringing timbres and general aura of infectious energy make for an excellent central performance. In retrospect, I think it was him as well as the Scottish gimmick that convinced me that Gloryhammer would be worth the time of day to begin with. When you listen to as much power metal as I do, you start getting very choosy and learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, otherwise you’d just give up on the genre entirely given how much mediocrity there is to sift through. Whether it was because of Winkler or novelty or the tongue-in-cheek demeanour that brushes up against Poe’s Law, for one reason or another I let my guard down with “Tales from the Kingdom of Fife.” For all the hype and gimmickry, it’s really just another run-of-the-mill, inoffensive, boring power metal record, self-aware or not, and I couldn’t recommend it to anyone but the most undiscerning fan of the genre. Which at this point, I suppose includes me. Shame on me.
1) Anstruther’s Dark Prophecy
2) The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee
3) Angus McFife
4) Quest for the Hammer of Glory
5) Magic Dragon
6) Silent Tears of Frozen Princess
7) Amulet of Justice
8) Hail to Crail
9) Beneath Cowdenbeath
10) The Epic Rage of Furious Thunder