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San Diego's Benedictum are a pretty hard band to place, not only because they persist upon a broad plain of stylistic deviations, from straight power and thrash metal to lots of modern groove, but also because they have one of the most unique vocalists in the genre. Veronica Freeman is one of the few metallic personalities that seems able to transcend the very concept of gender in her vocals. Not only can she sing with the formidable melodic edge of a forebear like Chastain's Leather Leone, but she can also bark out a manly angst akin to Arizonan thrashers like Phil Rind of Sacred Reich or a pissed off Erik AK of Flotsam & Jetsam. What's more, she'll accent herself with various growls, snarls and even a more delicate, feminine tone when the opportunity presents itself...
It really must be heard to be believed, but unfortunately I feel like it often feels too dominant a force to pay much attention to the music. Now, Freeman is not the only distinct individual in this band. The rhythm section is diverse and hard-hitting, and guitarist Pete Wells can shred along the best of them, explosive leads often becoming a tangible pleasure when they erupt from the sadly mundane rhythms. Benedictum have a very 'modern' appeal to them, that is a clean production style redolent of pop or radio rock, but this all too often manifests in grooves and cheesy squeals that I find pretty boring ("Dominion", "Grind It", "At the Gates"). Also, there is almost too much variation in the songwriting, so you'll get something stupid and bouncy like "Bang" run up against a cheesy, Lita Ford-esque power rock ballad like "Loud Silence" and then a proggish metal piece like "Epsilon", all in a row...
The lyrics are also confusing. Benedictum offer some pretty inspirational, verbiose prose in the majority of the material, but then they also have "Bang" or "Grind It" which are a little cliche and silly, at least how they come off above the music. That said, these Californians often know how to write a damned chorus: "Seer" and "The Shadowlands" show a lot of depth and planning, with Freeman counterpointing herself like a pro. The solos are almost unanimously sweet, even in the instrumental "Beautiful Pain", where Wells proves himself one part Eric Johnson and several parts Malmsteen. Much of the writing will be well suited to fans of modern metal albums strong on vocals, for example Halford's Resurrection or the Bruce Dickinson solos. I found myself absorbed in a handful of tracks, but turning my nose up at others, so in the end I can't say I enjoyed the album nearly as much as its predecessor Seasons of Tragedy (more of a straight up ass kicking there). But at the very least, the album is appreciably unique. For better or worse, you will not hear something like this every day. But then, you might not want to.
Often times, a band will impress the heck out of people with the first two albums and then fade quite a bit with the third album. Benedictum has fired back with Dominion, a follow-up to 2008's incredibly epic "Seasons of Tragedy", and seeks to break that mold. Does it work? Would I have given this album 98% if it didn't?
Right away, when you put this album in, you know what to expect. If the album cover doesn't tell you how metal this is, the first two songs will absolutely set the tone of this album. You play this and you will hear epic awesomeness. Everything works so well together, the drums, the guitars, the bass and the keyboards all complement each other nicely. As you approach the middle of the album, you will feel yourself jamming to the amazing melody of these tracks. I still can't listen to "Prodigal Son" without wanting to tap my feet in sync with the music.
Benedictum wouldn't be who they are though without Veronica Freeman, and what she does is incredible. She melodically sings, she screams, and she growls when the need arises - her range is unbelievable. What makes it truly impressive is that when you hear her sing, it's almost like hearing a bard telling a story. This is what Ronnie James Dio used to do with his music. She becomes the oracle of wisdom in "Seer", she becomes the defiant fighter ready for battle in "Dominion", and she becomes the tortured soul aware of the danger that lies ahead in "The Shadowlands". I will dare say it, there are no bad songs on this album. Even the somewhat lagging "Loud Silence" fits in tune with this album.
Those of you who think a female singer can't bring the same emotion as a man should check out "Bang". "Bang" is one of the best fight songs ever written, let alone in the 2010s. Veronica truly sums up the feeling of most metalheads in this world and she's leading the charge in a song that basically says "Fuck you, I'm going to kick your ass!".
Just when you think you've heard it all, along comes "Epsilon", which could be the single best track on the album, and an expansion for both the scope and direction of the band. I have held for years that there are bands other than Dream Theater that can make eight-minute plus epics and keep the interest of the listener, and this song is proof positive of that. Benedictum took the best elements of progressive metal and make it their own with this track.
The two bonus tracks are an interesting mix but not unusual for Benedictum. The penultimate song is "Sanctuary", a song that is a ballad and a slight change of pace for the album, but not for the band, as it's much in the vein of "Steel Rain" and "Valkyrie Rising". After close to 50 minutes of headbanging, emotional, and fist-pumping songs, this is the mellow out song to prepare you for what's coming next.
As for the last track, It surprised me much that they went with a Rush cover for the last song, but if you listen to it, Benedictum kept very true to the original song. Given how high that Geddy Lee sings, it's incredible to hear Veronica take on such a difficult song and manage to make it look easy.
This album may turn off a few people, because Benedictum was known on "Uncreation" and "Seasons of Tragedy" for the album being so ballsy, that it grabbed you by the throat and yelled "METAL!" in your face. "Dominion" does have some of that with songs like "Bang" and "Grind It", but it also took quite a few chances with progressive influences. As such, it's more coercive than forceful. To put it another way, it's like you getting into a car and driving to Metalville at 100 mph. When you arrive, you realize the entire trip rocked and your destination is just plain awesome.
All in all, just like the first two albums, this one will blow your mind and leave you wanting more. Benedictum is a band that will hopefully continue this trend of awesomeness for years to come. Pick "Dominion" up and crank it for all your friends so they know what real American metal sounds like!