If you’re at all like me, you’ve spent considerable time and energy mulling over questions like “what would Blind Guardian sound like now if they’d carried on along the vector suggested by “Imaginations from the Other Side” in the mid-90s?” Well, it’s entirely possible you’re nothing at all like me (good for you), but an answer to that particular hypothetical question does in fact exist. Sweden’s Persuader, releasing this album after an eight-year hiatus following 2006’s “When Eden Burns,” are a living illustration of an alternative timeline, the entity that might have resulted if a time traveler had gone back to 1996 and surreptitiously taken to spiking Hansi Kürsch and André Olbrich’s meals with steroids and amphetamines.
Singer Jens Carlsson’s vocal resemblance to Kürsch has been noted time and time again (although I can’t imagine Kürsch flaying screams like those in “One Lifetime” or “Son Of Sodom” out of his throat without a steady diet of whiskey and eggshells beforehand), but the band he fronts is more like Blind Guardian’s dystopian doppelganger. Despite owing a great debt of influence to their fantasy-obsessed forebears, “The Fiction Maze” is characterised not by lavish escapism, but rather by pulsating angst and alienation. Daniel Sundbom and Emil Norberg’s downtuned guitars erupt in explosive, staccato minor-key bursts, bristling with unresolved tension. Carlsson howls and wails like a forlorn soul, straining right up against the boundary of what would be considered clean vocals against a backdrop of thunderous power chords. There are cheerful sounding power metal records, and this is not one of them. Persuader make their dourness work for them, however – unlike the morose aesthetic of Nevermore and similar bands, the tension between power metal’s inherent sense of exultance Persuader’s particular mirthlessness is “The Fiction Maze’s” driving force, the reaction from which it derives its potency.
The bleak mood isn’t the most distinctive point in favour of “The Fiction Maze,” however. That would be the songs themselves; sleek, robust contraptions that betray a greater level of care and thought in their creation than is standard for the genre they occupy. Unlike, say, the heedless abandon with which Stormwarrior’s recent release plunges into familiar songwriting tropes, Persuader craft songs with a delicate hand and a disciplined sensibility, directing the ebb and flow of intensity with a deft hand. Look no further than opener “One Lifetime” for evidence of how Persuader work their way through dramatic arcs, the song cyclically building to a chorus that peaks with Carlsson’s coarse banshee howl and then adroitly tapering off.
This sort of careful management of tension and release is consistently present throughout, making for songs that are memorable and distinctive in shape and character. The title track settles into a thrashy groove from which periodically emerges an undercurrent of sombre melodicism. “Heathen” shifts smoothly between a stoic, churning bassline, a riff with an almost classic metal feel (all chugging root notes punctuated with punchy chords) and bursts of stormy double kick. Particular highlights are the slow-burning “Son of Sodom” that builds inexorably towards a satisfyingly huge crescendo, “Sent to the Grave” with its verses full of frantic, rampaging rhythm guitar work, and best of all, the fantastic closer “Falling Faster,” which ends the album in style with its most explosive and addictive chorus hook. At a hearty 52 minutes, “The Fiction Maze’s” highlights are numerous enough to more than compensate for more skippable tracks like “Worlds Collide” or “Deep in the Dark,” or the pointless minute-and-a-half instrumental interlude “Dagon Rising.” Nor does it hurt that the production is superb, rich and thick and crisp and heavy, a clear step up from Persuader’s prior outings.
“The Fiction Maze” doesn’t rewrite the rulebook for European power metal, but it is a welcome return for one of the scene’s brightest stars in the 21stcentury, and a fit companion for recent triumphs of the genre such as Orden Ogan’s “To the End” and Seven Kingdoms’ “The Fire is Mine.” If anything, Persuader sound more potent and virile now than they did eight years ago. If Blind Guardian have anything planned for 2014, they’ll have to work to rival this level of keen craftsmanship.
01) One Lifetime
03) The Fiction Maze
04) Deep in the Dark
06) Son of Sodom
07) Sent to the Grave
09) Dagon Rising
10) Worlds Collide
11) Falling Faster