In a far distant time, European power metal was not the glittery, metrosexual thing we know it as today. Before the hoods and capes, there was denim and leather; before the orchestral flourishes and syrupy Eurovision Song Contest melodies, there was grit and speed metal riffs. I speak of the German scene of the 80s and 90s: Running Wild, “Walls of Jericho”-era Helloween, Grave Digger, Gamma Ray, Iron Savior – the sound originally shepherded in by Kai Hansen and Piet Sielck. Melodic and ebullient, yes, but also hard, lithe and stripped-down. For all that I enjoy the glossy production values in the works of Tobias Sammett, Tuomas Holopainen and Tony Kakko (and I do enjoy them, really), they’ll never light a fire under me the way the old Teutonic favourites do.
Enter Hamburg’s Stormwarrior, a band seemingly custom designed to keep the spirit of old-fashioned German power metal alive in the 21st century. Considering they’ve collaborated with Kai Hansen multiple times in the past, including covers of classic Helloween tracks like “Ride the Sky,” one almost gets the impression that they’re being groomed for succession by their older mentor. With “Thunder & Steele,” their fifth studio outing to date, they’ve yet to demonstrate a single original idea – to say they’re derivative of older German power metal acts would be an utterly incontestable criticism just as much as it would be hopelessly missing the point. Stormwarrior’s modus operandi isn’t robotic rehash, but rather a loving act of preservation and rejuvenation, mining a tried-and-true formula for songs as predictable and simplistic as they are infectiously high-spirited and addictively catchy.
No vainglorious overtures here: the title track that opens the album eases the audience into Stormwarrior’s oeuvre with the subtlety and tact of a cannon blast. At three-and-a-half minutes, the song has no buffers, no elegant transitions – the raging sixteenth-note riffs of the verses crash into the exultant chords of the chorus without so much as pausing for breath. The desperate, furious momentum doesn’t flag for a moment through the shredding solo section. The song structure plays as though it’s on fast-forward, the band playing as though they need to get through the requisite beats of a standard German speed metal track in under some strict time limit.
This same ethos permeates the whole record – the industrious, almost punishing efficiency and pace. Not only is the momentum unflagging within tracks, but in between them as well; there’s scarcely two seconds of downtime between the final shout of “Thunder & Steele” and the opening bass line of “Metal Avenger.” The tracks that follow have the quality of a production line – “Sacred Blade”; “Ironborn”; “Steelcrusader”; all rampaging, overclocked odes to the merits of barbarians and marauders. It isn’t until “Child of Fyre,” the eighth of ten tracks, that the Germans reign in the tempo. These are the power metal equivalents of F1 cars, every ounce of fat trimmed in pursuit of the maximum possible thrust, luxuries like intros, outros and interludes mercilessly stripped out. Song structures quiver at the seams, barely containing the huge kinetic energy being produced therein. Almah, for instance, are making luxury sedans by comparison.
It’s not a subtle way of writing music, and “Thunder & Steele” is a transitory experience, each song seeming to end almost before you’ve realised it’s begun. But for while it lasts, it’s fearsome, in possession of a feverish, ragged energy that heats the blood. From out of the molten torrent of the guitars of Lars Ramcke and Alex Guth, armour-plated melodic hooks emerge that are simply irresistible. You’ll catch yourself mouthing along to the chorus of “Sacred Blade” and “Fyres in the Nighte” after their second repetition. The clattering fills of drummer Jörg Uken and the clank of Yenz Leonhardt’s bass add to the urgent, hungry feel of the album, as do Ramcke’s coarse, snarled vocals.
Nothing on “Thunder & Steele” sounds particularly refined or polished, and the songs are both samey and predictable – verse/chorus/verse/chorus/solo/solo/more solo/chorus/chorus/stop. But in a way, that’s kind of the point; anything else would create the impression that the band were pausing to think and consider their options, and even the implication of a pause would be to mute the record’s implacable momentum. Stormwarrior aren’t about thinking, they’re about plunging headfirst into the fray, bloodeagling first, asking questions later. They make music that seeks above all else to beawesome – and it is awesome, shallow and effervescent though it may be. There’s a purity, honesty and dignity to be respected in that, not to mention a rebuttal to anyone who believes European power metal is nothing but lovesick Finns.
01) Thunder & Steele
02) Metal Avenger
03) Sacred Blade
06) Fyres in the Nighte
07) Die by the Hammer
08) Child of Fyre
09) One Will Survive
10) Servants of Metal