Since their 2006 debut, Valkyrie have been something of a known commodity in the metal community. Some real what-you-see-is-what-you-get kinda shit, which is cool. Like many other proto-metallers, they have a penchant for the old-school sound. Bands like Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, Mountain, Molly Hatchet and the ilk are all likely sources of inspiration for this Virginia-based foursome. If it’s guitar-forward, these dudes are no-doubt about it, and they seem to relish the opportunity to bring this mentality into their fold. But, it shouldn’t be mistaken that they’re this “revivalist act.” Though they’ve been nothing if not consistent delivering a similar old-school energy themselves on each release, they’ve certainly had a savvier edge to their own guitar arrangements. They don’t so much dabble in tribute, but rather carry the torch of the heavy metal spirit. Their latest, Fear, is no exception.
It’s impossible to talk shop about Valkyrie without bringing up guitarist Pete Adams’ former band Baroness. Yeah, those dudes. Historically, such comparisons have always missed the mark as Valkyrie’s sound has always been a little more by-the-[hard rock and proto metal]-numbers than ol’ ‘Nessy, but since parting ways with the group, I can’t help but hear a few echoes of Pete’s prior work throughout Fear. Whether it’s the triumphant bounce often associated with the group in “Afraid to Live,” the epic reprise to close out “The Choice,” or the sultry crawl and subsequent phoenix rising moment of “Brings You Down,” Valkyrie hit on a few beats that have been largely absent from their previous work. Intentional or not, it’s a nice change of pace and something that may ease the pains of those who begrudged Baroness’ lighter, more psych rock turn as of late, but more importantly, it makes Valkyrie sound a little more contemporary and fresh.
In this same way, Valkyrie’s hooks are better than ever, but not so that they edge out all the splendor and adventure achieved by their memorable leads and harmonies. There’s more than enough room carved out for the Adams brothers to slather in their signature brand of guitar porn on the reg; you can bet geet geeks are assured to pore over these leads for quite some time. There are moments where I wish these dudes would just let ‘er rip for another ten minutes. Hell, drop in another instrumental track or two like the absolutely fucking beautiful closer “Exasperator.” But with this being said, the impressive technical performances of this unabashedly guitar-driven band leave something to be desired on the other side of the coin. The vocal melodies and riffs are good, but they rarely reach the same highs of the Adams brothers’ axe work. When they come close (as on “Feeling So Low,” “Afraid to Live,” “The Choice,” and “Brings You Down”), there’s the sense that these dudes are on the cusp of something really special, it just doesn’t connect as solidly or consistently as you might hope.
A lot of this imbalance likely stems from their compositional makeup. Structurally, most tracks on Fear follow the same blueprint: take a southern rock-tinged slowburner or mid-paced rocker, get it to altitude, and as soon as listeners are getting settled in and comfy, jump ship and freefall into guitarmony wonderland. You can knock the formula all you want, but in the larger context of the album, it makes for a well-paced and fun listen. It’s not as balanced as something you may hear from say, The Sword, but that doesn’t quite seem to be the vision here. The pop sensibilities on Fear simply don’t work in that way. Instead, what we have is something a little more leisurely, a record that begs to get tossed on during your next road trip or backyard cookout. No singalongs, no simple chorus-verse-chorus routines, but it’s just catchy enough to pull someone’s ear to ask, “Who the hell is this?” The dazzling lead work takes center stage throughout Fear, but it is supported well enough to keep listeners from scrubbing through the choruses and verse to get right to the dessert – of which there is a lot, who doesn’t love dessert?
It helps that Fear sounds fucking stellar, too. The rhythm section has the hard-charging blues rock thing down pat, these dudes have undeniably great taste and temperament. The bass punches through the mix, sturdy and reliable, sneaking away on some noodly walks for some added flair. The drums are crisp, a little dry, cymbals bright and quick, and overall full without taking over the mix – a perfect complement to the treble-forward guitar tones. It’s all gelled with a live kind of feel, necessary for the scenic, off-the-beaten-path and jammy detours the group often put themselves down. On every level, it’s a well put-together record.
If you’re looking for something that just flat-out rocks, keep Fear on your radar. The harmonies alone are capable to effortlessly carry listeners through the 44-minute runtime, but the moments where listeners aren’t getting lashed by sick licks often feel like they exist simply to support the vibrant guitar work elsewhere. Whether that’s a dealbreaker or not depends on your specific needs. Still, these moments are certainly performed well and they play a specific role, they just lack the oomph and consistency that could really push the band over the top and into that everybody won’t shut up about these dudes territory. But maybe they’re more hip because they’re not, ya dig? Old school heads and guitar nerds looking to add some variety to their dusty record collection will find a lot to like here, but if you’re in search of that game-changing heavy metal record with a classic hard rock/metal flair, this might not be enough to satisfy. Nonetheless, Fear is a fucking jam, and you can bet your ass I’ll be flipping burgers and sippin’ High Lifes to this bad boy this summer.
Fear not, Fear is available July 24 via Relapse Records.