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Freedom Call continued after Stairway to Fairyland by doing the exact same thing on their second album Crystal Empire, only this time it’s a little more streamlined. This is a more conventional power metal album, melding right in with the scene at the time which was absolutely bursting at the seams. They dialed down a lot of their epic songwriting here into quicker, more light-footed tunes – skipping along like rocks along the water. The epics they do give us are a bit more stodgy and conventional too – more consciously epic, without the sparks of ingenious songwriting the debut had with its build-ups and bridges before the choruses. But one thing still remains clear – this is the second happiest metal album ever, right up there with Fairyland.
The first half of the album is easily the stronger half. You get a slew of really awesome songs right in a row. The self-titled track “Freedom Call” is a gallant, romantic tune with speedy double-bass runs, trilling guitars and a high, fluttery melodic chorus – basically a clinic on how to do this kind of flowery, girly power metal. Catchy as hell and awesome as hell. “Rise Up” is even better, with more speedy riffs and an even better chorus. “RISE UP TO HEAVEN!” How can you not be happy when that’s playing?! It could make even the sorriest basement-dweller feel like a triumphant warrior looking out over a sunset-drenched land after a raging battle. “Farewell” is probably the album standout – that opening A Capella vocal part is just amazing and the song jumps into another peppy, upbeat rocker.
Further tunes like “Ocean” and “The Wanderer” rock out with more amazingly hooky moments, especially “Ocean” – an instantly memorable song. Epics like “The Quest” with its complex structure are good, but I dunno – the deeper chanting vocals just don’t sound as good as Chris Bay’s harmonized high-note bliss on the speedier, more direct songs. “Heart of the Rainbow” is a bit stodgy for this reason too. “Palace of Fantasy” is worthy of note just for how much of a jamboree of choirs and musical accompaniment it is. Probably impossible to play live, but also a forebearer to the Angra Temple of Shadows style power metal cornucopias.
If you hate this kind of flowery, upbeat power metal, Crystal Empire won’t change your mind. But for those of you jonesing for some lighthearted, spacious epic metal, I’d say this is worth your time.
In a few hours time I'll be off to see German power metal maestro's Freedom Call; masters of all things gorgonzola. I'm sat here with a stupid smile on my face - much like the one I had when I first heard Crystal Empire. For the uninitiated Freedom Call play the type of saccharine power metal most will condemn as flower metal, and to be fair, I wouldn't argue the point. Freedom Call are as wimpy as they come, choirs, keyboards, high fantasy? You got it. Is this bad though? Far from it.
As far as this style of sickly melodic power metal goes Freedom Call pretty much held the monopoly on the style at the turn of the century. Sure, there wasn't a lot of meat on the bones, or weight to the riffs as so to say, but what they did offer was the kind of music best suited to an inebriated late night sing along. Just about every song on Crystal Empire features a massive chorus, that after around two listens you're going to want to belt out at the top of your voice. Only the most dedicated conoisseur of misery could deny this album.
Packed full of catchy songs, led by the wonderful stick-work of Gamma Ray drum overlord Dan Zimmermann Crystal Empire is an exercise in guilty pleasure of the finest pedigree. Chris Bay's syrupy vocal work is backed by numerous choirs reeking of European pomp, I wouldn't be surprised if Kai Hansen helped out with these, I certainly notice a hint of that Gamma Ray magic. As for the guitar work, Chris Bay proves that he isn't merely a sugary voice, unleashing every trick he learned from Kai Hansen's "Power Metal for Dummies" book. Sascha Gerstner lays down some jolly good guitar leads throughout, but he never truly found his footing until he joined up with Helloween. As for the bass, it pretty much follows the drum and doesn't necessarily add or detract from the sound.
So, while I might have bled out a trickle of sarcasm throughout the review, I actually like Crystal Empire pretty well. Tracks such as the immortal "Freedom Call" or the later in the album brilliance of "The Quest" and "Heart of the Rainbow" Freedom Call proved themselves as cheese merchants worthy of business. Whilst hardly the best album the Germans had hidden up their collective sleeves, Crystal Empire is a near mandatory purchase for your average power metal aficianado, as well as fans of the lighter, more melodic shade of the metal spectrum. However those with faces locked in a permanent grimace should probably shut the blinds and pretend this band never existed.
Freedom Call's Crystal Empire is a shiny flurry of sparkling Carebears prancing through fields of poesies with rainbows shooting out of their asses and sunbeams shining in through one ear and out the other without obstruction, and I'll be damned if it doesn't grate on the nerves. This stuff is complete and total fluff, every idiotic flower metal convention all rolled up into a nice big ball of cliché that verges on self-parody. This album could've been written in a matter of hours, because there is not one original thought here. Let's run through this gauntlet of stupidity together shall we?
Musically, this album is laughably light in the loafers, bass frequencies pretty much inaudible, heavy riffs rare (and when they occur sounding like cut-rate Symphony X), riffs in general barely registering in the ol' memory banks. So it doesn't rock. It also doesn't take any advantage of its buoyancy, rarely taking its dreary melodic riffs into overdrive and zipping around with scorching classical riffs or engaging in that incredible dance of leads that power can do so well. Instead we get toothless melodies that take the sappiest Germanic folk-pop-sugarcoated riffic spoo from the worst couple of Helloween and Stratovarius records and play them incessantly with all of the emotion and intensity of a child's music box. Actually, music boxes have been known to make people cry. These guys make Lenny Kravitz look like a gutsy risk-taker.
And man, those keyboards. Other than a few Images & Words-ish leads (nowhere near Kevin Moore's level though), they spend the majority of the album tinkling along with the guitar on what I can only assume is the only patch on the dude's keyboard ('bad orchestra'). Somehow it makes it even lighter.
Worse yet are the vocals, which are utterly faceless. For the most part they sound like the standard Tate/Kiske clone (obviously without the intelligence and drama of the former and the charm of the latter), but with an extra pinch of Don Dokken-like sweetness that makes every note sound extremely easy as if no effort is being put into it. Mostly because Bay is probably not pushing himself at all. He never makes a mistake, his voice never cracks, you never hear any strain... 98% of singers out there have more passion and personality in their pinkie finger than this robot. The songwriting does him no favours.
Power metal bands use big anthem-y choruses with huge fake choirs all the time, and the main reason for this (besides the Lemming-like 'follow the leader' philosophy) is to get their smiley European fans to sing along with the band. Well, I hope I never see Freedom Call live but if I ever do I will be damned impressed by their fans for not falling asleep midway through the chorus. They are too damned long for what they seek to accomplish, and as a result the repetitive pop riffage of songs like "Freedom" is dragged out to a degree that is usually found only in the manufactured corporate schlock shilled by the likes of Jive and Wind-Up.
In fact, this whole album seems ill-thought and slapped together. Why on earth would a band playing what is in all respects a profoundly European style of music think they can properly sing about Egyptian mythology? They don't even bother trying to insert any sort of window-dressing to give an appropriate motif, they don't even spell the damn word right ("Pharao"?!). They just plunge along with their insipid music just like every other track on the album. Goddamn Iron Maiden for writing songs as good as "Powerslave" and "Revelations" and convincing these puffed-up poofs that they can handle the subject in any way that isn't laughable.
Basically, there is one pretty good song on this album. It is in no way original, but the riffage has a bit of bite and it manages to be much more dynamic than any of the other tracks on the album. "Heart of the Rainbow" brings to mind Symphony X, albeit with a less interesting chorus, featuring a pretty chunky riff about 2/3 through the song, a cool keyboard/guitar duel and a decent harmony riff forming the backbone of the song. If the rest of the record were like this, we'd be looking at a 75 or so. But we ain't.
Freedom Call is pretty much the lowest form of power metal derivative, and are EXACTLY why I never bothered much with this genre until relatively recently. Dan Zimmerman should be ashamed of this considering his pedigree with the likes of Gamma Ray. No triggers? Good for you. Take those skills somewhere it will make a difference.
Stand-Outs: "Heart of the Rainbow"