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Cauldron Born (or, more specifically, Howie Bentley) is an interesting band to dissect. Forming at a time when grunge was on the rise and power metal was all but dead, managing to release a classic of the genre in 1997. I can't even name another good USPM album from that year - Virgin Steele were the only other heavy hitters during the '90s, and they wouldn't release Invictus until the following year. The point is, it was easy for dozens of bands to try to make it big in the mid-to-late '80's, when metal was only rising in popularity, and a few power metal bands, such as Queensryche and Savatage, were enjoying a fair amount of commercial success. However, to start a band when absolutely no group in the genre is enjoying any significant degree of commercial success, and very few acts are together at all, is respectable. Clearly, Bentley wasn't interested in money or popularity, but rather only in making the best music he could in the style he wanted to play.
Skip to 2002. It's been five years since the release of Born of the Cauldron, and many of the fans are probably wondering whether it's going to be shelved in with the stack of power/prog bands who released just one full-length and then faded into obscurity (e.g. Dead Calm, Oracle, Screamer). Thankfully, Cauldron Born aren't done yet - they're almost ready to join the very exclusive, very small group of USPM bands who released more than one good full-length. While Europower may be on the rise, USPM is in as big a slump as ever, but when did that stop these guys? Bentley, along with drummer Bill Parsons and bassist Shawn Kascak, return with new singer David Louden for another 50 minutes of the technical, obtuse power metal they're known for.
...and Rome Shall Fall is, at its core, quite similar to the debut, but there are quite a few differences as well. The first and chief difference is the new singer. Danny White was an absurdly talented vocalist with a strong, slightly demented personality that fit the dark, arcane, occult atmosphere of Born of the Cauldron perfectly. Unfortunately, newcomer David Louden can't hope to compare to his predecessor. That being said, he's by no means a bad singer, with a good range and a strong masculine tone. In a nutshell, he sounds like a slightly inferior version of Geoff Tate if he decided to grow some testicles and couldn't handle his lower register as well. Not that he ever sounds truly annoying, but when he tries to bellow out using his lower midrange, he sounds pretty monotone and uninspired. However, both Tate and White are pretty damn tough competition; suffice it to say that Louden is quite competent on this record.
Sadly, Louden isn't the only thing that takes a step down on this album. The production isn't a whole lot worse than on the debut, but the change in quality is definitely noticeable. The guitar tone sounds mildly plastic, and while still good, isn't near what we heard on the debut, and Louden sounds like he's been processed in some capacity; again, while not huge, it is significant. Finally, the songwriting takes a different approach. Rather than dreadful and occult, Bentley opts for triumphant and warlike, clearly drawing from Omen and the like, while still maintaining its technicality a la Slauter Xstroyes (although they were probably too obscure to be an influence). The good thing is, Louden's vocals suit this material much better than they would have suited Born of the Cauldron. The bad thing is, the songwriting is much less consistent, and even when it is good, isn't nearly as ambitious as Born of the Cauldron. Apparently, Bentley should have stuck to doomy, Fates Warning-esque melodies.
Even so, as I've stated already, the album is quite good, surpassing most other bands with ease. The album starts off strong, with the epic, barbaric "By This Axe I Rule", which sounds heavily influence by Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian (although, admittedly, I'm unsure as to whether he ever actually wielded an axe). The opening riff is fantastic, and the chorus is proud and strong. It's also clear at this point that the album is going to be less obtuse and more straightforward than the debut, although make no mistake, it's still plenty technical. The last couple of minutes of the song drag on, with a darker atmosphere that fails more than it succeeds, but overall it's a good song. The title track is better still, with noodly scales galore and a more progressive structure, feeling as though the song is a story moving forward rather than a bland old verse-chorus-verse-chorus number. The solos are fantastic; Bentley is pulling out all the stops here.
The album peaks with "Finder of the Black Stone", with strong verses exploding into an epic, triumphant chorus that just gets better each time - Louden really shines here; this is something that would make the likes of Manilla Road proud. Unfortunately, the album takes a dive in quality after that. "Blood Bath in the Arena" doesn't manage to create much of an atmosphere at all, with bland riffs and grating vocals that don't really manage to go anywhere. "Dragon Throne" has some good moments (the verses in particular), but has a lame chorus and lackluster soloing that leave something to be desired. "Clontarf" also has some merit, with a nice opening riff and a decent verse, but a similarly poor chorus and forgettable soloing.
Thankfully, the album manages to pick up again before it ends. "Storming the Castle" is good but not great, a bit darker than the previous songs, with some nice classic noodling scales and a solid buildup to a good chorus. Finally we have "People of the Dark Circle", which is better still, sounding as though it almost could have made the cut for Born of the Cauldron, as it is much darker and more obtuse than anything else here. David Louden manages to pull off the vocal lines quite nicely, although I'm convinced Danny White would have done a significantly better job. Either way, this is definitely a highlight of the album, along with the title track and "Finder of the Black Stone".
The lyrics here, as the album title might suggest, are largely about ancient Rome, with the first and last songs being exceptions; "By This Axe I Rule" mentions not Conan, but rather Kull, a character I remember from Marvel Comics' early days as Kull the Conqueror (I'm quite sure he predates the Marvel comic, but that's all I'm familiar with). "People of the Dark Circle" doesn't make any specific references, but describes some ancient magical rite that is pretty much in line with the lyrics on the debut.
Overall, while not incredibly consistent, the album does a good job, managing some strong highs with bits of quality throughout; Bentley is certainly a master of the lead guitar, shredding every which way he can, but not merely for its own sake; usually the fantastic soloing is incorporated pretty well into the song. Once again, he proves he knows how to make music; now, in 2012, with another EP allegedly on the way, I only hope he still has that touch (although, if Briton Rites is any indication, he sure as hell does). Check out Born of the Cauldron first, but once you've sunk you're teeth into that one, you won't want to miss this, either.
While both albums begin very similarly with the singer's scream turning into a deliciously evil laugh, compared to Born of the Cauldron, ...And Rome Shall Fall differs in a number of significant aspects. First off, it's a little more straightforward and streamlined, with pretty much every aspect from song structures to rhythms to riffs to vocal melodies simplified somewhat to go for a more immediately catchy and accessible sound. Now, that may sound negative, but "more accessible and less complex than really inaccessible and really complex" isn't bad. That's not to say the guitar histrionics are all gone, quite the opposite in fact; they seem less spread all over the place, but concentrated in certain sections (it goes without saying that Howie Bentley is still in fine form). For example, the beginning to both "Finder of the Black Stone" and "Storming the Castle" start out with a substantial neoclassical-ish part, though most of the riffs in the song are much more standard. The debut album was almost the opposite, with the unusual guitar histrionics dominating the songs with a more standard riff providing an occasional groove for contrast ("The Sword's Lament" with its monstrous power chord chorus riff provides an apt example). In short, ...And Rome Shall Fall is a less ambitious album than Born of the Cauldron. It doesn't aim as high, and as such does not triumph as mightily. Still, it succeeds quite admirably at what it attempts.
Another significant difference is the general tone of this album is much more Robert E Howard than Clark Ashton Smith, if you get my drift. More chopping people in half on a battlefield than facing awful fates at the hands of unnameable horrors. Now, the debut did have "In Fate's Eye a King" and this album has "People of the Dark Circle", so it's more a shift in emphasis rather than a complete transformation. Still, if you listen to each album in its entirety, the difference in overall mood is quite noticeable.
The switch in singers also affects the albums. While Danny White was more standard in tone and favored a lot of falsetto, David Louden sounds a lot more like a Geoff Tate with inklings of Bruce Dickinson or even better Bill Carter from Screamer. He favors a developed head voice rather than all-out falsetto. While it may sound like a cop out, I actually like both singers pretty equally; both fit the styles of their albums quite well.
One of the major strengths of this album is the choruses, and the songs are much more chorus-centric here than previously. An extreme example is "Finder of the Black Stone", which is possibly my favorite song from the album; the chorus is 45 seconds long, and repeated three times (keep in mind too that it's a fast-paced song). It gets better every repetition, exploding at the end with multi-tracked wailing in classic USPM fashion. "I WON'T SEE MY WORLD IN CHAINS, WHILE MY FISTS CAN STILL GRIP STEEL!" Yes my friends, the Texan would be proud. "Clontarf" is another standout, with a great driving speed metal riff and sprawling melancholy Dickinsonian vocal melodies fitting the story of the defeat of the Vikings at the hands of the Irish.
...And Rome Shall Fall is one of the most epic albums I own. If you want me to define exactly what I mean by "epic", just listen to this album. This album is the most "this album" album I own. With fags like Hammerfall and Rhapsody prancing about in fields of daisies and LARPing each other with plastic swords and dildos, in 2002 it's almost unheard of to hear something this epic while still being manly as fuck. What Manowar try to be but don't ever really succeed at, this album is.