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Moscow's Master has been a rather curious band over their long and distinguished career. Just when you would think they are about to settle with any given sound, next album came out, showcasing yet another side to an already inventive band, stopped neither by the shifting lineups nor by various financial, label, and scheduling problems that alone make up for some fascinating reading. That Master persevered since their 1987 self-titled debut album and is still making music in 2005 alone is quite an accomplishment.
So, come 2005 and a new album, interestingly titled "33 Lives". While the record it follows, 2001's "Labyrinth" has been somewhat lackluster even at best, not helped at the least by new vocalist Lexx's rather unique style not necessarily suited to some of the tracks thereon, expectations were set rather high for this one, as initial reports indicated a more straightforward, focused, heavier album than its predecessor that occasionally sounded as if the band members said to themselves: "ow, shit, we've got time scheduled in the studio in two hours, and not enough songs - what do we do?". For me personally, "33 Lives" was the last chance I would have given Master, since in my personal opinion ever since 1988's "With A Noose Around The Neck", most of their recorded material has been very uneven in quality, with the last two records (aforementioned "Labyrinth" and 1996's Pantera-soundalike "Songs Of The Dead") taking the cake for approaching absolute dreadfullness at times. So, the question remains, does "33 Lives" deliver, or is it the last nail in the coffin of what was once Russia's premier classic thrash metal band?
From the first track "Game", my hopes were not set too high, with its almost hardcore-ish guitar harmonics and (dare I say) nu-metal leanings. However, there are more things going on in the background than is readily apparent; smart use of keyboards and some interesting riffing save the song from being a complete throwaway (unlike "Labyrinth"'s opening track), and actually make up for an interesting enough listen. Also, Lexx's vocals finally seem to click with the rest of the band - a welcome change from them frequently having an effect of nails on the chalkboard on his first record with Master.
From there on, we advance to what is arguably the best song on the album, "Artisan Of Sorrowful Deeds" ("Master Skorbnykh Del"). Now we are talking business! While not as fast as Master's music during their heyday, there are more than a few hints here of the glory days of their best material, from frenetic double bass work on the drums to Lexx finally figuring out how to sound like a proper thrash vocalist. This here is a mature, heavy thrash clearly rooted in classics of the genre without sounding stale or taking on too many death metal influences like the bands passing for thrash today. This song alone is worth buying an album!
Things slow down (but only a tad) on the next number "Faith Burns At The Stake", which again borrows heartily from Master's thrash heritage. I guess the best description of the sound found on "33 Lives" is "post-thrash" - less emphasis on frenetic speed and anger, and more on melody and hooks, while still keeping things heavy and not chasing modern trends in the genre. While "Artisan Of Sorrowful Deeds" could have possibly fit on the second Master album (arguably their best), "Faith" could have been on their self-titled debut, when their thrash leanings were still in their infancy.
The title track is next, and it is an obligatory ballad - except that it is actually good. This is one thing that Lexx truly does shine on; he does not have the best range in the world, and his usually rough and aggressive delivery (somewhat reminiscent of a weird cross of Ronny James Dio and Chuck Billy, if this makes sense) sometimes comes across as forced, but on slower tracks, he displays unexpected amount of soulfulness and emotion that just work, no questions asked.
After a rather strong start (three very good tracks, one of which could even be considered great, and one decent one), one would think that Master is back with vengeance, and that things could only go up from here. Unfortunately, the next two songs, "Express" and "Drink Of Fire" are rather ho-hum - not horrible by any means, but the closest to filler material, especially the latter; the former is somewhat saved by chorus that harkens back to the glory days of classic thrash. Still better than almost anything on "Labyrinth", but not Master at their best.
After a short instrumental "War Of The Worlds" (does Master really HAVE to include an instrumental on every album? This one is at least not as pointless as some on their previous records that seemed to be designed to show off bassist Alik Granovsky's talents or obligatory guitar masturbation of whoever was Master's guitarist that week) we are treated to what must be a joke song. I mean, "Heavy Lambada", people? You can't be serious, right? Especially with the lyrics that would make Manowar blush. But as far as joke songs go, this one is not too bad, obviously made with live shows in mind with the lyrics clearly supposed to invoke metal camaraderie (or whatever they would decide to call it) during the obligatory sing-along. Still, this is the song I skip the most when playing the album.
Finally, the album proper closes out with "Snow Hunter", which is probably the second-best song on the album; not quite thrash, and more in the power metal category, but it would not seem out of place on Master's first, self-titled effort. Melodic, heavy, and with the best guitar solo on the record, it is a good way to finish it; I usually stop it there, without going through "bonus" tracks of which only one, "Stihiya" ("Force Of Nature") is an actual song from Granovsky's old and otherwise long-forgotten band of about 25 years ago, redone with current Master lineup; the rest are mostly "day in the life" type of recordings and whatnot, and are more of a curiosity than anything else.
Overall, "33 Lives" is a marked improvement upon its predecessor, and while it is not quite the thrash metal Master has been known for in days past, it is a mature album from veterans of the genre, both mindful of their roots and not afraid to embrace the values of modern production and occasional (but only so) modern influence. While still not quite up there with their first two albums, this is easily their best album in last ten years.