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If you don’t like a tongue in cheek approach in metal, can’t appreciate the Toy Dolls despite claiming to like punk or think every form of happy happy joy joy catchiness does not belong in ‘true metal’, read no further. This is not for you. No use reading about stuff you don’t appreciate, right? Anyway, a third album is a special thing in metal. Remember, Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax, Iron Maiden, yes even Sepultura? And the list goes on! Same goes for Alestorm.
For what it is, this tongue in cheek pirate metal album is as perfect as it can be. Gimmick-metal often gets looked down upon. Mostly the arguments are ‘too much focus on image but musically coming short’ or ‘image can’t conceal a lack of compositional quality’. Remember even Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler calling Kiss a comic book act? Lots of people just can’t handle a gimmick act and even less when that gimmick act earns a living with it.
As if Alicia Silverstone’s image didn’t have a positive influence of Aerosmith sales in the early nineties… Image and looks mean a lot, no use denying unless you’ve been blind all your life but even in that case the produced sounds from any artist are obviously an ‘imagine’ on itself as well and Alestorm not only have the lyrics, videos and artwork to be pirate metal but the songs and sound as well.
Whereas the band originally started under the name Battleheart with the idea of playing power metal, rather quickly turning into pirate metal and signing to Napalm, it took them a while to write an album as consistent as ‘Back Through Time’. I like their debut, Captain Morgan's Revenge. It had a fair share of memorable songs on which their different influences came together fluently with the lyrical content and image of the band. But there were also (even more so on their second album ‘Black Sails at Midnight’) just a few songs that meandered or just went astray too far from the binding concept. No such thing here, not even ‘Death Throes of the Terrorsquid’ feels out of place.
After starting of with a section, closely inspired by early Children of Bodom, the opening song Back Through Time immediately sets the tone for the entire album. There’s some thrashin’, changes in pace, singing along and of course Bowes’ typical ‘drunken sailor‘ short keyboard melodies. The whole tongue in cheek is so clear when you just know Bowes can sing better than he actually does with Alestorm. Even his voice is an act, sounding like a boatswain with sleep deprivation induced aggressiveness towards the deck crew. Everything to fit the concept. And they do it so well.
Lots of the arguments and complaints you might have about Alestorm, are being sung about in ‘Scraping the Barrel’, a waltz reminiscent of Nancy the Tavern Witch but with clear lyrics regarding the history and future of Alestorm and the way Bowes looks upon it. The everlasting comparison to Running Wild indeed IS ludicrous and pretty tiresome. The whole musical and lyrical concept of Alestorm and their constant consistent continuity comes closer to what someone new to the pirate metal subgenre would expect than Running Wild have ever done. And yes, that’s coming from someone who likes a fair share of Running Wild songs now and then.
If there are some Running Wild songs which sound like an embryo of pirate metal, Alestorm have sent their swashbuckling child to buckaneer university and he now has a full time job. The Alestorm blend of Metal and Ahoy is fully matured, aged in used bourbon casks and of course some caramel was added to the final product.
Shipwrecked, The Sunk'n Norwegian, Midget Saw and of course ‘Rum’ are all typical Alestorm sing-a-longs written for the live environment and could easily be released as singles for that matter (had this been the eighties). My other favorites on Back Through Time however are the less seven-inch-worthy tracks 'Buckfast Powersmash' and the epic ‘Death Throes of the Terrorsquid’. The first being pretty much a crossover-thrash song with pirate metal verses (lyrics about a cheap alcoholic beverage, especially notorious in Scotland and Ireland) and the second one a mixture of Alestorm’s pirate metal with modern symphonic black metal. The strength being no part feeling out of place. A wondrous tale which closes the regular album perfectly in bombast.
As being an old Nuclear Assault, Napalm Death and SOD lover, I can only appreciate the 6 second song ‘Rumpelkombo’ which even has a typical Alestorm keyboard melody. So even with short funny tunes they manage to still make it sound like Alestorm. Just an example, again, of how cleverly contrived everything is about Alestorm on Back Through Time.
The question is, where can they go next? Some might have thought that already after their second album but ‘BackThroughTime’ proves the band keeps on growing as musicians as well as (especially even) composers. Oh, by the way, the Paloma Blanca cover (with altered lyrics, of course) on some versions of the album is hilarious. Alestorm propably wouldn’t get far on Eurovision but I sure as hell would love to see them compete
To make things clear before I start my review, I have to admit that my love story with Alestorm began right back in 2006 when they were still known as Battleheart and when they released two eps where they covered, among the other songs, Journey man by Korpiklaani, a band whose shaman symbol I had tattooed on my right shoulder many years ago. Those days are long gone though, and even if Alestorm re-recorded many of their old songs (Over the seas, Set sail and conquer, Terror on the high seas etc.) on their debut album, the great "Captain Morgan's Revenge" (great, but with many flaws, to be honest), their sound has significantly changed across the years.
2008, the year in which Alestorm released their debut album, has been the same year in which I saw them for the first time and I had really enjoyed the show (even because before that gig I had listened to their album something like two hundred times), but they were still very inexperienced and "anonymous" compared to what they are today. Yeah, I saw them some days ago; they have significantly changed their line-up by adding a live keyboard player (Elliot Vernon) and by hiring a new drummer, way better than the other one they had years ago, and it's clear to everyone that the great improvements they showed on the album I'm going to review here (and, to some extent, even in their good second album) are not a flash in the pan. There are rather unmistakable signs of an awesome growth in matter of talent and ability both in writing and playing their songs.
Anyways, coming to the review of this great album, only 3 songs out of 10 are rather anonymous and boring; excluding the 3 second song, Rumpelkombo, indeed, the rest of the album is a gem and masterpiece in today's folk metal scene. Abandoning the not-so-good sound balancing that characterized their debut album, vocalist and mastermind Christopher Bowes's keyboards bosses the show here along with really astonishing guitar work by Dani Evans. The whole album is full of catchy choruses and solos starting with the title-track Back Through Time (with some funny lyrics about pirates hunting for Vikings "six hundred years into the past") and, above all, from the great Shipwrecked that comes with a funny video you can find everywhere and with some entertaining lyrics as always, and it's nothing but the refrain that captures the listener. Great refrains you can hear on other masterpieces like Rum and the awesome cover of Barrett's Privateers by Stan Rogers, all songs that, differently from many of Alestorm's older songs, have amusing and "light" lyrics and melodies with every one of them coming with a catchy chorus and great solos.
More serious atmospheres characterize the two remaining songs. The first one is the awesome The Sunk'n Norwegian that reminds me their old song Nancy the Tavern Wench which talks about a tavern and creating an unique feeling of melancholy ("for tomorrow we sail to a faraway land..."), thanks to Bowes's raw and pirate-like voice and, of course, to his ubiquitous keyboards. The last song isn't really a new concept in Alestorm's discography (like many said) as even Captain Morgan's Revenge was a pretty long and various song, but here I'm talking about the last song on the album, Death Throes of the Terrorsquid, the dark atmosphere of the battle against that monster is generated with growl vocals and slow rhythms (just think that in Heidenfest 2011 Vreth from Finntroll sang the last part of this song), spanning through almost 8 minutes of what I can call an "epic" folk/power metal song with symphonic elements.
Besides the only track I didn't mention, Swashbuckled, a really enjoyable song that deals of course with the New Jersey thrash metal band Swashbuckle (yeah, I think that the lyrics of this song are even more enjoyable than the music itself), the remaining three tracks aren't really worthy, mainly Scraping the Barrel, a repetitively slow ballad-like song and Buckfast Powersmash, an anonymous thrashy piece. These three tracks prevent me from giving a high rating of the whole album.
The main reason why I gave a rating of 90 to this album is that seven songs out of ten are astonishing both lyrically and musically speaking. They're dominated by Bowes's keyboards and unique voice (that still reminds me of Boltendahl's raw voice from Grave Digger), but differently from their previous two albums here. Alestorm presents itself as a solid band, able to write complex songs with funny, serious, alcohol-related or fantasy lyrics, always remaining into a universe that we can call the "pirate" world, and trust me, it's not easy at all not to write (out of 10 songs) something that has little or nothing to do with the main theme that Alestorm chose to narrate. Yeah, in the end you can see every Alestorm album like a "concept" album. They all talk about piracy and nothing else, but this third masterpiece comes really near to perfection with extremely enjoyable and catchy songs that at the same time contain complex melodies, riffs, and - never forget this - awesome lyrics.
It would be so easy to simply dismiss this CD by saying that the joke has finally worn out. The problem there is – and maybe I’m in the minority here – I’ve never seen Alestorm as a joke band. Funny? Of course. Stupid? Well yeah, give yourself a gold star for observation there, Columbo. But beneath the hokey “arrr, matey” vocals of Christopher Bowes and his often silly lyrical high jinks, the music taken on its own terms has always remained sturdy and true (if admittedly rather lightweight) power/folk metal.
However what is undeniable is that they seem to have written themselves into a corner here, and signs of fatigue are definitely beginning to show on a 3rd CD that starts and ends in storming fashion, but creaks and groans unbearably in patches in between. The problem must stem from the fact Bowes and the varied associates that have co-written with him over the years find themselves in bit of a catch-22 situation – they have their own corner of the market nailed down, but in securing it have found themselves with little room to manoeuvre in a creative sense. Any attempts to write outside the Alestorm box would no doubt be met with both the scattering of the more casual fans they have built up with their amusing antics and the ire of a label that clearly spotted a winning gimmick when they signed them up back in 2007.
Regardless, the opening clutch of songs shows the band in high spirits and even gives the illusion there may be more than a couple of perfunctory surprises in store. The opening title track, after an unexpected bit of blastbeating under the keyboard noodling, transforms into a power metal barnstormer, with Bowes stretching his limited voice to surprisingly good effect on the thundering pre-chorus and chorus, which take great delight in poking fun at their more viking-minded compatriots on the folk metal map.
“Shipwrecked” also offers a nice surprise with the thrashy opening riff which recurs as a gang vocal-punctuated bridge – it’s very obviously Children of Bodom-influenced, but it makes for a nice change of pace here. “The sunk’n Norwegian” is a bit more familiar, the lyrics essentially a more upbeat rewrite of fan favourite “Nancy the tavern wench”, but it remains a crisp and lively outing nonetheless.
It’s after this wining combo that things turn a little sour though, as while Bowes’ keyboard work remains generally fresh and sprightly, the same old riffs and chords becoming glaringly apparent underneath it all on songs like “Midget saw” and the completed insipid “Swashbuckled”. As some of these titles reveal, their restlessness is turning into outright piss-taking on occasion, which is fine by me – it’s just a shame the results couldn’t have been more refreshing, especially on “Buckfast powersmash” which promises a lot to a west of Scotland boy like me but delivers little more than an annoying novelty tune.
A summing up of the creative dearth and the songwriting dilemma Alestorm have snookered themselves with comes on “Scraping the barrel”, the customary ballad track right in the middle of the CD. While the 2nd verse is a defiant “FOAD” to their critics, there’s no doubt the rest of the song carries a certain air of self-loathing to it, and unsurprisingly it is one of the more emotive and captivating efforts on ‘Back through time’.
For all the doom-mongering though, just as the CD seems to be petering out it, Alestorm manage to pull it together with a pair of nice surprises at the end. A metal version of Stan Rogers’ much-beloved a cappella sea shanty “Barrett’s privateers” is a tricky thing to pull off, and while the gleaming, heavily stacked modern production robs the song of much of its raw emotion they still manage to do justice to a classic in their own silly, divisive way. Týr’s Heri Joensen pops up unexpectedly to offer a nifty guitar solo, but I can’t help but think they have missed a trick by not handing vocal duties over to him as well, his sonorous tones a more obvious fit for the song than Bowes’s scowl.
Regardless, the band don’t disgrace themselves here, a trend they manage to continue with the one truly daring song on the CD, the closing “Death throes of the terrorsquid” (oh unroll your eyes, please). At nearly 8 minutes long it is their lengthiest outing to date and contains more twists and turns than they have managed in all but a few of their songs so far combined. The shifts between heroic power metal galloping and the darker, doomier verses don’t mesh quite as well as they could and the song isn’t quite the success it might have been but there is still a lot to enjoy – not least a screeching guest vocal performance from Ken Sorceron – and it goes to show that when Bowes puts his mind to it there is more to his game than mindless repetition of stagnating ideas.
‘Back through time’, for the moderate success it does enjoy, remains easily the weakest Alestorm CD to date, and doesn’t exactly bode well for their continued presence as a recording entity. Unless Bowes and co manage to somehow reinvigorate their creative mojo, then only branching out in new directions is going to save them from becoming the one-note joke their snipers have always accused them being. There is evidence here that they might be capable of pulling it off – but whether they have the chops, motivation or even the backing of their label to pull it off remains to be seen.
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)
Rabid eclecticism and a lack of shame can be a pretty effective way at getting into phenomena in the metal world that would normally appeal to pop culture hounds. A lyrically campy take on a very often oversimplified and far from lighthearted subject such as pirates is one such situation, and Alestorm pretty well takes the rum-raisin ice cream cake, though Swashbuckle comes close and is actually a bit more tongue-in-cheek. This is a band that successfully merges most of the well-known clichés of 80s heavy metal and present day power metal practices with the emergent folk/symphonic craze popularized by Turisas, with absolutely no accounting for subtlety. Now the question becomes, will the 3rd time be the charm or the unexpected flop for all who have followed the story thus far?
The long and short of it is, this is a band that doesn’t mind being stylized and bound to a very specific formula, and “Back Through Time” is the expected continuation of that formula with maybe a handful of developments. In fact, this may be the first time that an ongoing popular story (such as “Friday The 13th” and “Leprechaun“) has gratuitously incorporated a farfetched Sci-Fi twist and not ended up turning into a horrid exercise in self-parody. There is a slight goofiness to the premise of pirates traveling back several centuries to slaughter a bunch of Vikings with their superior weapons technology. But this is the sort of tolerable and mildly amusing sort of ridiculousness that doesn’t really detract from what counts, which is the music.
In some ways the band seems to be taking a few hints from their popular New Jersey rivals and have elected for a somewhat nastier and shorter approach to making their victims walk the plank. A few surprisingly well introduced blast beats, some fairly thrashing guitar riffs to complement the over catchiness, a few other stylistic mergers on a handful songs and a greater emphasis on gang chorus work are some of the commonalities to unfold. The guitar and keyboard shredding has been downplayed a bit as well, but ultimately this is a sound more conducive to power metal than thrash metal, although one might venture to guess that if this were to get much more thrash-influenced that it might creep into hybrid power/thrash territory. But still, the common elements with past albums win out and this largely becomes a slight and fairly safe step in a gradually evolving sound, in perhaps too slow a process for some.
The hard truth is that this album isn’t going to win too many people over, though the short and sweet thrash work on “Shipwrecked”, “Midget Saw” and “Buckfast Powersmash” might rope in a few people who prefer Swashbuckle’s handiwork and who won’t miss the guttural, mostly toneless barks. For the steadfast consumer of this band’s standard fare, there’s a usual mixture of bodacious accordion/keyboard work and drinking song oriented choruses to be found in “Back Through Time” and “Scraping The Barrel” that will definitely appeal to those who couldn’t get enough of “Captain Morgan’s Revenge”. The same story generally goes for the moderately ambitious “Death Throes Of The Terrorsquid”, though there are some oddly placed Dimmu Borgir elements snuck into the middle of this thing (probably to synthesize the terror of the massive sea monster through the auditory medium) that throw things for a little loop.
The same basic story head on past endeavors holds true here, and that is that there isn’t really much of a middle ground where these plundering Scots are concerned. The formulation of accessible with some occasional extreme metal elements will either take the listener on a cartoon adventure on the high seas, or feel brutally awkward enough to make him prefer a real keelhauling. It’s the weakest of their efforts in the sense that the technical work of the guitars and keyboards, which are a staple of their live work, has been significantly drawn back. But still a sure to be winner for those who are drawn to Disney-oriented pirates with a moderate amount of attitude.
If you liked the band's first two records, you will also happen to like this record as the Scottish pirate metal musicians didn't change their formula at all or tried out some experiments. I must admit that this is a rather negative point because the second record which I really liked was way more epic, complex and well arranged and the band could have build upon those songs and develop into a very interesting and progressive direction. But they decided to cut down their long songs and focus on catchy party tracks with superficial lyrics and the usual topics.
It's still very entertaining and amusing to sing and drink along to songs like "Buckfast powersmash", "Rum" or "Swahbuckled" as well as the band's typical cover songs towards the end of the album. As you can see, not only the topics but also the song titles have strong similarities and the album is indeed the most coherent and straightest one they have ever done. The lyrics happen to be more humorous than ever and prove that the band doesn't take itself too serious and that they are still the perfect party band of the current metal scene and don't care about opinions, popularity or trends. They do what they want to do and are proud of their stereotypical sounds, lyrics and behaviours. What "Manowar" are for the so called invented true metal music are "Alestorm" for their so called pirate metal style. They don't move an inch away from that.
This time, the record lacks of diversity and only the as usual very solid opener "Back through time" and the epic dark ride album closer "Death throes of terror squid" that has a stupid title but turns out to be the most interesting track on the record break out of the usual song structures. The latter song is the only one that stands out from the others a part of the short gag called "Rumpelkombo!" that honours the band's indeed very accurate description by Grave Digger's singer Chris Boltendahl. Even though this lack of creativity would merit a quite low rating, I can't help but sing and dance along to those simple but effective songs and have a big smile on my face no matter if this concerns rather heavy and thrash metal influenced tracks like "Shipwrecked" ore more melodic and slow anthems like "Scraping the barrel". The melodies and lyrics are probably even catchier than before and will underline the band’s strength as an energizing live band. And all those things are the reasons why this album will nevertheless spin in my stereo sound system from time to time when I feel that I need to listen to something easy, entertaining and positively amusing and superficial. I honestly admit that this doesn’t happen quite often with me but when it happens “Alestorm” is always my first choice along side with “Manowar” that I mentioned before.
Alestorm are and will always remain Alestorm and their style and music has already become a brand. They underline their limited but effective status with this record. They won't win any new fans with this and justify those who criticize them for their closed minded lack of imagination. But any fan will be satisfied once again and praise this pirate party metal music.
First off, if you didn't like Alestorm and their blunt gimmick to begin with, I would STRONGLY suggest avoiding this album. By no means have the Scottish Metallers gone back on anything they have honed over the last half-decade and they make that extremely clear on the track "Scraping the Barrell". If, however, you were caught by pleasant surprise by their debut Captain Morgan's Revenge (as this one was) than do yourself a favor and grab this release immediately.
Let's face it, Black Sails at Midnight probably didn't need to happen at all. It was all well and good but it was definitely striking while the iron was hot assuming, rather fairly, that the hype was gonna die and no one would be left around. Seeing as how Austrian Death Machine was able to crank out 3 albums without dying out probably spoke to just how much metal fans are willing to put up with a gimmick in order to get good musicianship. See: Dethklok. Seeing that their fans didn't really go anywhere, they took their time for a PROPER follow-up.
And boy WHAT a gimmick. Not a single track on here is void of some pirate-theme. Even when breaking the fourth wall to discuss alcohol, friends or critics its still under the guise of piracy and is made to be as unclear just who the true voice in Alestorm is. Doesn't really matter cause the stories aren't exactly enthralling, its just pure fun. I don't think they gave anyone the impression otherwise. Literally every song on the album is meant to be a drinking song. They are full of horns, fiddles, accordions (live ones now) and plenty of gang vocals as seen in chant-a-long anthems like The Sunk'n Norweigan, Shipwrecked or Barrett's Privateers (a Stan Rogers cover for all you Canadians).
And with the extra time, Chris Bowes and friends added quite a few tricks to their power metal. Running Wild is still the basis of inspiration but there are way more folk influences which are mashed up with quite a bit of thrash and, dare I say, death metal. Buckfast Powersmash for example has enough folksy accordian to blow the sawdust right out of the tavern before it thrashes right out in the chorus. Rum is a heavy drinking song that will put Finntroll to shame and the blast beats that open up the title track are straight out of Gothenburg's playbook.
The major issue with the album is its very NOW. It is not timeless by any means. It is certainly well written and well performed its just a big issue with bands that lean this heavily on a subject and style. 10-15 years down the road its hard to imagine pirates being as vogue as they are right now. So long as no copycats spring up, this shouldn't be a huge issue. The other issue is the closing track. Alestorm is not built for epics and they have proved this time and time again. If it was 3 minutes shorter, there'd be no issue, but it just overstays its welcome. At least its at the end.
The real winning factor however is the fact that there is no filler. The cover is well chosen (covers if you get the special edition which I recommend), the ballad is necessary and even the lyrics have some relative diversity (I mean the title track is about pirates travelling back in time to murder vikings). It is what Black Sails should have been and speaks wonders as to what they can truly offer, and if you get a chance: see them live. This is good music but its much more contextual when you have a physical mug of ale to chant a long with. Highly recommended.
Playlist Tracks: Buckfast Powersmash, Barrett's Privateers, Back Through Time
Throwaway Tracks: Rumpelkombo, Death Throes of the Terrorsquid