Ashes of Ares was formed by veteran members of Iced Earth and Nevermore: there’s a lineage that sounds promising at first, but becomes less and less so the more you think about it. I cut my teeth on Iced Earth’s early output as a young and naïve metalhead, back when their career trajectory still seemed salvageable, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking of the band more fondly than is warranted by the sum of their discography. I still marvel at the ambition and scope of “Dante’s Inferno” and I listen in awe to “Alive in Athens” when Matt Barlow’s leonine roars shift the Earth on its axis, but I doubt you’ll find a single fan willing to claim that they’ve been firing on all cylinders since the mid-90s – a situation not helped by Barlow swinging in and out of their lineup like he’s on a bungee cord.
Ashes of Ares quite obviously draws its heritage from the works of Iced Earth, featuring Barlow adding his distinctive voice to the guitar and bass of Freddie Vidales, himself Iced Earth’s bassist from 2008 to 2012. Unfortunately, the pair seem to have brought with them a deal of the blandness and mid-paced insipidity that increasingly crept into their parent band’s work from “The Dark Saga” onwards. Vidales’ riffs aim for a dark, angsty variation on classic American heavy metal with some inflection from thrash, but suffer from a deathly lack of energy and creativity. His melodies aren’t unpleasant, but the sense of propulsion critical to this genre is missing, almost every song slipping into a lethargic, lukewarm plod. The songwriting is depressingly noncommittal, offering neither infectious hooks nor much in the way of intensity. It sounds unfinished, like a series of templates for song structures meant to be filled in later with the bits meant to be engaging or compelling. Heavy metal as elevator music, the sort of thing you might hear in the background of a movie penned by a hack screenwriter in order to establish a character as socially maladjusted.
The worst offenders are the fourth track, “Punishment,” and closer “The One-Eyed King,” both of which are based around the kind of ugly and thuggish stop/start rhythms that sound like they could be on the run from a Slipknot album. Nominally meant to evoke anger and discontent, but so lacking in dynamics and energy that they occur instead as petulant (also, having Barlow scream “this is the path I chose!” elicits comparisons to “Night of the Stormrider,” none of them flattering). The tracks that incorporate clean and acoustic guitar like “This is My Hell” and “On Warrior’s Wings” generally fare a little better. Vidales’ use of his instrument in that context occur as more expressive and nimble than the clunky distorted riffs, although some of the gestures at sensitive and emotional writing err towards schmaltzy (beginning a track with the line “my brother died today” is about as shameless a move on the audience’s heartstrings as you can get). Solos are technically proficient but perfunctory, coming and going from songs without incident.
Barlow’s performance is okay, mind you. He doesn’t get much opportunity to let rip with the full four-octave breadth of his range, but even in his default mode of low, smouldering snarls, his voice is one of the most identifiable in American metal, dripping with brooding mystique and longing. He brings to bear Ashes of Ares’ one truly memorable idiosyncrasy.
That’s about it though. Ashes of Ares are almost as uninspiring to write about as they are to listen to – not hard on the ear, but “inoffensive” is about as much as can be said for ten songs this bland and anonymous. It’s vanilla. It’s beige. It’s everything a subculture that prides itself on exuberance and vitality should aspire to not be. Consider: Ashes of Ares were formed in 2012, and only a year later have released a full-length album on one of the biggest metal record labels in the world, with all of the opportunities for promotion and distribution that entails, on the strength of a pedigree that’s been out of date for 15 years. Meanwhile, the likes of Visigoth are left to peddle their wares on the thankless underground circuit. The more I think about that, the less happy it makes me.
01) The Messenger
02) Move the Chains
03) On Warrior’s Wings
05) This Is My Hell
06) Dead Man’s Plight
07) Chalice of Man
08) The Answer
09) What I Am
10) The One-Eyed King