We grow attached to bands over our respective lifetimes, and their members become icons. But as those bands come and go, rise and fall, and their members move on to big, but not always better, things, we must adjust the way we view them. Ashes Of Ares, for their part, are three men who have sharpened their skills during their time with prominent and respected bands in the metal community; Matt Barlow and Freddie Vidales spending time in Iced Earth, among others, and drummer Van Williams, a key element to the long time success of the now defunct Nevermore. But what was is over, and what is must now begin. Immediately following their splits with former projects, the three united in what would be, hopefully, their crowning achievement as musicians and metal icons. And rather than sounding like a hybrid of all those other gigs along the way, they've formed their own identity; the sum of their three parts. On their debut album, Ashes Of Ares put a distinctly new signature on their careers, both as individuals, and as a the massive juggernaut that has risen from the ashes.
Despite becoming synonymous with the works of Iced Earth, Barlow's voice translate well to his own work, and "The Messenger" makes that more than clear. He hits the marks in verse and chorus, alternating between the deep growls and higher pitch wailing that his range allows. But there is something extra added here; the hooks are far catchier than the previous work of anyone involved, lending the track well to the inevitable live setting sing along. Notably, Williams is at his career best in both sound and speed, ripping through a torrential downpour of double kicks and complicated fills. The transitions, then, become much easier, as one track ends and the next begins. There is a balance between speed and sonic punishment on "Move The Chains," one that is impressive this early in the band's time together. Williams and Vidales seem to have a cohesion together that helps the music leap from the speakers. They elevate each other, rather than battle for lead rights. And with Barlow leading the charge into battle, there is a constant forward motion. That consistency lends itself well to the tempo change that comes on "On Warrior's Wings," a track that could easily be titled a heavy ballad. Sure, there are acoustic guitars in the opening, and the subject matter is emotional derived. But there is no sense of backing off the gas here, and by track's end, you are back into full head swinging glory. The challenge would be to not let your fist extend into the air.
If there is one misstep to be found on the album, it comes in the form of "Punishment." While Vidales and Williams provide a devastating backdrop here, Barlow stumbles on the lyrical content at times, resorting to cliche phrases that never really seem to gel into one flowing verse. His work in the bridge and chorus, though, could be seen as atonement. The soaring cry that ends the track is a signature that only he could put on the paper. Returning to form, "This Is My Hell" is a power thrash anthem that hits all the targets along the way. Vidales lays down a monster lead here, one that quickly becomes an album highlight. This is the best example of a band that is on the same page, each member putting their own stamp; Williams splashes and crashes through verse and chorus, while Barlow hits the highest of highs, and pushes himself to the edge of his ability. While melody plays an important role throughout, it is the grit of "Dead Man's Plight" that stands out, allowing Barlow to adopt the lower, growling register at times. It's difficult to resist his battle cry, as he invites you to tip the balance between dark and light. It is in contrast that tracks like this line up with the following track, "Chalice Of Man." The latter is an all out bruiser, taking any remaining restraints off of Vidales and Williams, and giving them the artistic license to bend, shred, and crush anyone in attendance.
Far more introspective than the album as a whole, "The Answer" sees Barlow belting out his best quivering timber, in a swaying, lighter inducing masterpiece. It brings to mind elements of the Osbourne classic "Mama, I'm Coming Home," both is sound and tone. Later reincarnated as an acoustic ballad in the bonus track area, it manages to be emotional without being distracting from the main arc of the album. Even the light tapping of cymbals at the hands of Williams carries more weight than you would expect. And as before, the shades of lights are immediately overtaken by dark clouds; "What I Am" is not middle of the road track. It comes bursting out of the gate with reckless abandon, Williams kicking, swinging, and crashing his way through a series of dizzying rolls and beats. When the solo portion kicks, just shy of the three minute mark, you are treated to everything you could possibly expect from a band of this pedigree and talent. The album closer, "The One Eyed King" isn't a sappy look back at the album at hand, or even the normal summation we see from albums of this ilk. Rather, it is snare drum fueled piece of intricate guitar work and growled vocals. You would be hard pressed to escape this effort without looking down to see your feet tapping out the beat on the floor beneath you.
With the short attention span of most modern music fans, band breakups and shakeups might, in factm be essential to keeping music fresh and exciting. And while watching your favorites bands go on hold, or your favorite members exit, there is almost always something new coming down the pike. For Barlow, Williams, and Vidales, they will always have their past experiences to draw on; but they've begun to pave a new road for themselves. Ashes Of Ares isn't Iced Earth lite, or Nevermore II, or anything of the sort. it is the collaboration of three musicians at the prime of their careers, making music that comes as naturally to them as heavy riffs come to Tony Iommi. It is both fun and refreshing to hear all three at ease, doing what they've been doing their entire lives. You can hear the comfort in the way they play together, and in the way the songs flow from beginning to end. There is no point in making the comparison between this and the past. Ashes Of Ares is the present, and likely the future, that we have to look forward to. Might be time to make room for your new favorite band.
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