Traditional metal is an interesting beast. The name itself is a sort of misnomer as “tradition” implies a longevity that metal doesn’t possess yet. It’s hard to remember this but even under the most extended of timelines, metal has only been around for fifty years. That’s hardly enough time for a true tradition to manifest, as the generation of progenitors is still very much alive and kicking (even if some of them have lost their edge or have succumbed, tragically, to an early death). However, in spite of these chronological concerns, a “traditional metal” genre seems to be very much in play. For clarity’s sake, we’re not talking about veteran musicians still making music in their old style; that’s just continuation. Traditional metal is, in contrast, young(ish) musicians choosing to write, play and record metal in the traditional style, leaning on bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Helloween, Motörhead, Judas Priest and the likes for their inspiration.
2016 is shaping up to be a treasure trove for such a throwback style. Bands like Sumerlands or Spiritus Mortus are tapping back into their metal roots and dredging forth intensely moving albums that more than succeed at holding a light to the greats of yesteryear. However, perhaps the most successful of these 2016 excursions is Spellcaster‘s Night Hides the World, an album steeped not only in the aural trappings of traditional metal but also in the iconic aesthetics that have always accompanied the style. One needs only look at their video for the title track from the album to appreciate the level of dedication these Portlanders have for the aesthetic: aviator goggles, wolves crying at the moon, absurdly over the top solo gestures, leather jackets and much more combine to create that Iron Maiden circa the late 80’s feeling, channeling that over the top, rock star swagger that had captured an entire generation during the time.
However, all of this would be completely moot, of course, without the level of expertise and finesse evinced in the music. As the video for the title track plays, make sure you listen to how accomplished the guitar tone is on the guitar lead in the beginning, slicing right at the heart of our nostalgia. So to the solo, a compact and technical guitar based expedition which once again evokes the sense of fun and wide eyed wonder that guitar solos used to appeal to. The bass and drums are of course relegated to a backing role, playing an almost galloping beat without which the proto-power metal style wouldn’t be completed. The drums in particular carry more modern frills on top of the traditional elements, especially in the sphere of production. This is also a point worth mentioning: the best bands in the traditional metal genre, Spellcaster included, do not make the mistake of confusing the limited production tool of the past with a hallmark sound. Thus, they do not exaggerate its importance and, instead of adhering to an outdated sound, wield both modern production and classic tones side by side (listen to “The Lost Ones” for example and listen for the blast beats that were simply an impossibility in the original era of metal’s growth).
The entire track and, indeed, the album as a whole, simply oozes power and a simple yet endearing dedication to explosive fierceness. This is crowned by perhaps the most impressive instrument in Spellcaster’s panoply, the vocals. Obviously a central part of the heavy metal waves ranging from the 60’s to the 80’s, the vocals on Night Hides the World are an interesting departure from heavy metal’s timbre in the realms more associated with progressive rock acts like King Crimson or Deep Purple, prototypes of metal in an “outside” genre. As such, they are not constantly tuned to the highest pitch possible, relying on powerful, Rob Halford like shrieks. Instead, they are more contained, powerful in a way that makes us think of pent up energy and potential. They still have their range and register but they’re much more concerned with a convincing performance along the instruments rather than over the top, singular moments. Thus, they don’t have the desensitizing quality that heavy metal vocals often have, wherein scream after scream get lost as the listener’s ear gets accustomed to them.
This is perhaps the album’s single most impressive accomplishment as a whole as well. Traditional metal runs the risk of turning into “white noise”, a repetitive humdrum that, while it has its merits, often lands on ears already well practiced in ignoring its timbres. On Night Hides the World, modern elements and an earnest love for the source material prevent that, crafting an album that has merit on its own while obviously still nodding constantly towards its influences. Thus, it outlives the initial hype generated from nostalgia and manages to comport itself well as just a great album. Here we can also find a trait common to the other traditional metal releases of 2016 and why they have been so excellent: like Spellcaster, they understand that the ancient ones are firm and true ground to stand on but that we must use them as a starting point rather than as the end all and be all of our worship.
Night Hides the World has been out for a while now but time is irrelevant in retro releases. You can purchase it over at Spellcaster’s Bandcamp.