Greece’s Battleroar successfully resonated with fans of epic heavy metal with 2008’s career high-point “To Death and Beyond,” a high-minded opus of crashing chords boasting an eloquent melodic sensibility – the sort of thing Virgin Steele’s David Defeis would dub “Barbaric-Romantic” while nodding appreciatively. In the six years since that album’s considerable achievements, the band have witnessed a series of changes in their robust lineup. Guitarist Manolis Karazeris and bassist Gus Macricostas have since been replaced by Antreas Sotiropoulos and Stavros Aivaliotis respectively. More noticeably, the operatic, ethereal tones of vocalist Marco Concoreggi that played such an important role in giving songs like “Oceans of Pain” and “Death before Disgrace” their otherworldly, larger-than-life aura have been replaced by the rougher, earthier stylings of German singer Gerrit Mutz. It’s a move that had me trepidatious in advance of the release of their fourth record “Blood of Legends” – I found Concoreggi to be an undervalued talent in the contemporary metal scene, and I’ve previously been underwhelmed by Mutz’s work in Sacred Steel. However, though the result feels palpably different to its predecessor, “Blood of Legends” proves itself worthy of its lineage and a superlative addition to Battleroar’s already impressive curriculum vitae.
Battleroar are at the forefront of the epic metal scene that has put its roots down in the Mediterranean in recent years. With riffs taking cues from classic USPM acts such as Warlord, Manilla Road and Omen, combined with elements of the atavistic romanticism of Bathory, they takes pared-down, gritty guitar work and incorporate it into austere, extravagant hymns of Hellenic splendour. Unlike the nimble, fluttering rhythms of European power metal, they bulldoze their way through mid-paced songs with various configurations of crushingly heavy power chords and a grim and portentous bearing. By no means sunny and triumphant, they nevertheless engage the escapist impulse in listeners with the evocation of larger-than-life imagery – imagine an enormous oil canvas painting of an army with a thousand swords and burnished shields gleaming in the noonday sun and you’re in about the right mindset.
What sets Battleroar apart from their contemporaries in outfits such as Doomsword, Wrathblade, Airged L’amh, et al. is a depth and lushness to their instrumentation, layers of harmony offsetting the brittle primitivism of the riff work. This owes partly to Alex Papadiamantis’ weeping violin, his quivering notes imparting a sense of fragility and reflectiveness at opportune moments. Furthermore, Battleroar strategically include strings and choirs to deepen the impact of their most grandiose moments (the awesome – in the truest sense – chorus of “Valkyries Above Us” springs to mind).
The band strike a remarkable balance between rawness and opulence, one that is borne out by the songs themselves, perhaps the most consistently solid collection of tunes that Battleroar have yet compiled. Though “Blood of Legends” perhaps doesn’t boast any tracks individually as memorable and impressive in stature as “Oceans of Pain” from “To Death and Beyond,” it also lacks any tonal misfires like “Born in the 70’s.” An admirable clarity of purpose is demonstrated throughout; a tone of straight-faced portentousness is maintained throughout, enough that the songs carry a sense of weight and import but without giving in to self-important absurdity a la Manowar. More up-tempo tracks like “The Swords are Drawn” and “Chivalry (Noble Armor)” snap and snarl with appropriate violence and aggression without ever losing their melodic conscience, the tumultuous leads and Mutz’s livid growls periodically giving way to bittersweet interludes of acoustic guitar and violin. Correspondingly, the more stately tracks such as “Poisoned Well,” “Valkyries Above Us” and “Exile Eternal” are never anything less than propulsive, managing their long sections of build-up in such a way as to be exciting and rousing rather than ponderous.
Although I can’t say I don’t miss Concoreggi at least a little, Gerrit Mutz acquits himself more that satisfactorily in his place, boasting a warm, clear, strong mid-range that’s an ideal complement to the heavy, sinewy rhythm guitar. He occasionally transitions into a harsher rasp, but it’s only ever well-advised when he does so, usually when the music and lyrics mutually demand a note of threat (one particular moment on “Chivalry (Noble Armor)” – “Deceivers! And traitors! Deceivers crawl under my feet!” – sending honest-to-God chills up my spine).
The longer I listen to it, the more I appreciate what a balancing act Battleroar pull off on “Blood of Legends.” It’s no small feat to have made such an unabashedly escapist metal album without having it feel the slightest bit gaudy or cheesy, an album that’s serious without being dour and epic without being ponderous, an album with such a persistent strain of melody without feeling softened or neutered by it. This is epic metal as it should be played, and there are innumerable overproduced “symphonic” acts out there who could do to take a leaf out of Battleroar’s book. It’s a credit to its authors and its genres, and a highlight of 2014 for me.
02) The Swords Are Drawn
03) Poisoned Well
04) Blood of Legends
05) Immortal Chariot
06) The Curse of Medea
07) Valkyries Above Us
08) Chivalry (Noble Armor)
09) Exile Eternal
10) Relentless Waves