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When I decided to revisit Mystery of Illusion some months ago after about a thirty year hiatus, I was curious to discover if I was going to encounter what I call the 'Ladyhawke effect'. What is that exactly?
During the glorious year of 1985 the fantasy film Ladyhawke was released and as a youngster I watched it and found it thoroughly enjoyable, including the contemporary stylistics appended to give voice to a newer generation of film goers. Decades later, I re-watched it and found it borderline unbearable. The storyline and leads were as wonderful as I had remembered them to be, but none of it mattered when the music score consisted of chintzy dated synthesizers farting away some of the shittiest stock Casio-presets ever along with some corny soft-prog, blanketing the entire movie in time-capsule cheese. Yet back then I didn't sense the music being detrimental at all; it was what was considered modern at the time. Cutting-edge shit for a fantasy film. Looking back now, it's arguably the biggest reason why something like The Princess Bride is rendered comparatively timeless while Ladyhawke suffers under the constraints of bygone trends.
Released the same year as that movie, Mystery of Illusion thankfully did not turn into another ghastly revelation, being an inferior product than my memory recollected. Back then I was down with anything louder than Quiet Riot and any other popular MTV-friendly metal acts, and Chastain's debut roughly fit the bill. We're talking good ole' fashioned head-bangin' heavy metal. There were some production issues that I never noticed or cared about back then, but these faults are not grievous enough to ruin the listening experience. It's a good album with some major talent involved, but there's also this sense of a young band still trying to find its way. It's like they were formed as an avenue for lots of guitar solos, but the potential to be a first-rate group with a strong focus on memorable songwriting caused a gradual shift and focus in style towards something more epic and heavier, resulting in this album being rather hodge-podge yet extremely enthusiastic in vision overall.
The band's moniker is the last name of six-string slinger David T., but I have to wonder if the engineer thought that Chastain was the name of their snare drum since it's given so much weight and prominence. Every thunderous strike on that drum-head has meaning and insight into the days of yore when black knights roamed the forests in search of nubile nymphs unbound by the need for cloth-based ornamentation. It's fucking loud, proud and echoey but that's part of the fun of the 80's I suppose. The rhythm guitar could have benefited with some sharpness and heft, which is a surprise since Shrapnel Records recordings tend to champion guitars above all else, but at least the solos, and there's certainly no shortage of them, are up-front and strike hard like a broadsword through a cantaloupe.
And then there's the bewitching Leather Leone, pushing her lungs to the limits of conviction like a young Dio with tits, espousing medieval fantastical tales of eternal battles between good and evil. Okay, maybe some of them aren't medieval in nature, but there's no "hot nights in the city" shit either. A powerhouse queen in full form already, her delivery consistently threatens to steal the spotlight away from the mighty axe-weilding knight, but damnit David's solos kick some serious ass. What I dig most about them isn't the technical flair, but rather their sheer burliness. The man shreds, but there's little of that surging wave of neoclassical wank that was underway at the time in favor of some killer blues licks peppering the fretboard fireworks. His solos are manly and majestic, and combined with Leather's power-pipes, freedom and victory is assured as they ride into battle on competent steeds named Mike and Fred, providing the rhythm section.
Musically Chastain lurks freely within that bold, rich and robust heavy metal realm alongside bands such as Armored Saint, Iron Maiden and 80's Black Sabbath. Songs like "When the Battle's Over" and my favorite Mystery of Illusion track "I Fear No Evil" are high octane fist-pumpers, with the latter actually boasting a slightly cleaner engineering mix so that the drums don't overpower the rhythm guitar. Shit why couldn't the rest of the album sound like that? There are also some slow tunes with a focus on being epic such as "Night of the Gods" and "The Winds of Change", and here is where Leather really puts on her grand showcase, as if she's singing her heart out from the peak of an Alp. There's also some galloping triplet action with "We Shall Overcome", some straight-up rockers and even a taste of pure speed metal with "I've Seen Tomorrow". Pretty much every one of these songs provides sing-along choruses with catchphrases that belong on family crests, except the mopey yet somewhat potent "Endlessly".
Chastain's debut certainly reverberates in a brazen fashion, proud for its time with enough reverb to satisfy any 80's heavy metal enthusiast. The album title also carries a certain unintentional weight as well, in that the band's next release could really have gone into either glam metal territory or power metal chest-beating and the evolution would not have seemed jarring either way. The mystery of where the band would head next was soon answered by the faster, more rampant Ruler of the Wasteland, but Mystery of Illusion does bear a certain charm for sticking to its guns as growing trends in the scene slowly subdivided metal fanbases.
So unlike Ladyhawke, Mystery of Illusion can be given a spin in this day and age with much less wincing, blushing and cackling. Its faults are relatively minor, like Matthew Broderick's penchant for breaking the fourth wall, rather than an insufferable travesty akin to Andrew Powell's music score. Between the guitar showmanship of David and the clench-fisted wails of Leather, the talent level is extraordinary and the songwriting generally offers a good time with plenty of fortitude to cleanse the mind of fear and apathy, rising to take that final strike of the rapier into the heart of thine enemies and shit. It's not Chastain at their best, as that would soon follow, but for a 'leather & studs' product of its time it's not bad at all.
Heavy metal in 1985 was still a morphing and always changing landscape, as there were groups thrashing as hard as they could, bands that were taking evil beyond its limits (Bathory and Celtic Frost), and then there were bands like Chastain who wanted to play like their heroes in Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, etc. A lot of American bands who played in this vein were usually a bit faster and ended up pioneering the USPM subgenre, but Chastain played very much like the forefathers on “Mystery of Illusion,” the band’s debut full-length record. Was this band’s rendition of heavy metal as good as the legends before? No, not really, but this album serves as a terrific foundation of what was to come in this band’s future.
As many would expect, the songs on this album are dominated by midpaced riffs and a lot of melodies, which is made apparent on the first track “Black Knight,” which consists of the aforementioned riffs and a decent melodic intro. The melody that opens “I Fear No Evil” is definitely an ear-catcher and the riffs later on also follow suit. Unfortunately, Chastain wasn’t very consistent and songs like “When the Battle’s Over” and “I’ve Seen Tomorrow” tread along a mediocre path due to derivative riffs and a lack of proper execution that was seen on other memorable tracks like “Mystery of Illusion” and “The Winds of Change.” Another track that just didn’t stick well at all was “Night of the Gods,” a sludgy song that had plenty of St. Vitus and Black Sabbath influence, but this clearly isn’t the style of music that Leather Leone and the crew excel at.
Speaking of Leather Leone, she is one of the highlights on this album with her beautiful voice that possesses an insane range. Her singing on “Endlessly” is soothing and pleasant, but she can also hit the high notes and bring a bit of aggression to her vocals as well (“I Fear No Evil”). Another bright spot on this full-length is the lead guitar work of David T. Chastain. There are of course the aforementioned melodies that show off his skill, but this man can absolutely shred and this is noted in just about every song. His solos are brilliant, there’s a perfect mix of melody and technicality in every one, adding something to remember on even the dullest of songs. “Mystery of Illusion” isn’t the greatest heavy metal album that you’ve never heard, because there are plenty out there that are better, but it’s still a quality listen from a stellar band who would later go on to unlock their real potential with their next release.
“Mystery of Illusion”
“I Fear No Evil”
“The Winds of Change”
Originally written for Nightmare Reality Webzine.
Chastain – Mystery of Illusion
Leather Leone is a kick-ass vocalist that absolutely shits over anything I can do – and that’s a fact. After some initial scepticism when hearing Chastain had a female vocalist, I was put in my place by this album and the follow-up ‘Ruler of the Wasteland’. Chastain is a power/heavy metal band that few have heard of; they write top-notch material with various influences being apparent from point to point. Acquiring two albums of theirs at the same time, I had a hard time when trying to figure out which one was better, but the answer is both of em are great – Mystery of Illusion is a deep and epic feeling metal album with excellently crafted tracks.
‘Fear no Evil’ is a truly epic feeling number with a guitar harmony intro that evokes powerful emotion before ripping into a speed-metal section first verse that’s just exceptional. Leather has strong vocals in this one, with incredibly commanding lyrics and well-held screams – she has a terrific voice with great range. Banshee-like screams that could be compared to Metal Church’s 80’s stuff. Guitar-wizardry is evident here with a whole bunch of showy guitar solos and harmonised efforts that make for fantastic listening. Really a great song while not even necessarily being one of the best of the album. This one proves solid songwriting as there’s a considerable degree of complexity in it with the chorus having somewhat of a catchy effect.
The albums couple of slower numbers include ‘Night of the Gods’ in which you come across sludgy heavy riffage coupled with the banshee-screams of Leather in an evocative slow number that may evoke comparisons with Dio. Lyrical content is dark with references concentrating on Armageddon and the end of the world, wrath of the gods type thing. David Chastain is gain on form in this one with some powerful guitar lead.
‘Black Knight’ marks a solid beginning to the album, with particularly powerful vocals very much in the Metal Church vein coming through, with some Racer X almost being apparent at times, in ambience and guitar. F**k! I cant get over how aggressive Leather’s vocals are in this piece and indeed, the whole album. I like the slow bit in this with a real heavy and rumbling bass. The dark ambience in this section coupled with Leather’s delivery evokes horror-punk band 45 Grave (who are excellent by the way).
‘When the Battle’s Over’ is a power metal number with plenty of ‘punk’ sounding stuff happening on guitar – that is if it wasn’t mixed differently, and combined with harmonic higher pitched ‘metal’ guitar and power-metal imagery. This one’s a punchy hard hitter with interestingly mixed backup vocals that you can hardy hear.
Chastain is a band you don’t really hear of too often, though like other great bands in the same vein (Liege Lord, Vicious Rumors et al) they are relatively unknown, yet f**king phenomenal – particularly on first listen. This is a tough-as-nails release with tonnes of attitude coming from an impressive vocalist, along with great lyrics. There’s plenty of heaviness coming through courtesy of solid drums and good production. Chastain seem to have a very good idea of what they wanted to do – and hence have a solid direction which comes through in this particularly solid album. Really, I cannot recommend this band enough to classic metal fans – they really have a distinctive and fast-paced take on the genre with speed-metallic tinges coming through along with epic imagery and thoroughness of delivery.