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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"
I only gave this album a 1% higher rating than "Stairway" because it's pretty darn tough to top such a stellar debut, but this album did it. This album also highlighted the building blocks of one of the most intriquing concept stories but out in the power metal genre. The sides of good and evil are given shape and definition, as well as specific champions who will battle to outwit the other in a conflict that will decide the fate of Taragon. As with it's predecessor, this album demands a specific review for each track.
Freedom Call - Following a haunting intro to the album which sets a mood of conflict in the album, this most memorable anthem builds from a lone guitar voice into a sheerly awe inspiring anthem of triumph. Showcasing Chris Bay's abilities as a lead guitarist in his own rank, as well as a chorus that I will never get out of my head.
Rise Up - Blistering speed dominates the majority of this song, with a slow middle section that is reminiscent of a church anthem, except with a punching electric guitar coming in and out. A series of brief guitar and synth solos trade off to complement the song nicely without making it too long.
Farewell - Almost would be a punk rock song if it wasn't so darn musical. A repetive chorus, which is saved by an extremely dense layering of themes and counter-themes. Mid-tempo throughout, but with a strong driving feel.
Pharoh - Haunting anthem that will probably go down as the most unplayable song live because it's front loaded with a veritable orchestra of synth sounds. The tempo drags a little because it doesn't really qualify as a ballad, but it's themes make up from it's slowness.
Call of Fame - Another high speed cooker that sounds almost like a continuation of Pharoh until you get to the chorus. These song connections create good hints as to the album's nature as a concept story, even to those who didn't read the CD jacket beforehand. Guitar solo is descent, I particularly was taken by the interplay between the synth horns and the lead guitar during the main instrumental theme.
Heart of the Rainbow - A mini-epic that travels around alot of different sections, starting with a catchy piano intro that sets the tone for the song as an important chunk of the story. Guitar and keyboard solo interchange is reminiscent of Van Halen at times, showcasing Chris Bay's talent as a multi-instrumentalist and Sascha's capabilities as a soloist.
The Quest - The grand epic of the album, beginning with another piano intro, this time of a more virtuoso cadenza style. This is probably the best song that Freedom Call has ever put out, challenging other large scale epics such as Gamma Ray's "Heading for Tomorrow" and Helloween's "Keeper of the Seven Keys". A series of pulverizing hard sections and haunting soft sections fillin the body of the work, with one of the most climactic guitar solos I've ever heard. If this album were to be judged by just this song, it would get a perfect score.
Ocean - Another fast one that borderlines on sounding like an 80s new wave song at times. It's not particularly the strongest song I've ever heard, but it has some charms. Chorus is a little redundant, but the guitar lead section is decent.
Palace of Fantasy - Promising song that kind of meanders around a bit, good chorus, but it sounds like the song can go further than it did. Guitar solo is a little bit boring.
The Wanderer - Decent song, functions as a slow anthem to close the album. Personally I'd go for something faster to close the album the way that Another Day did, but this one works just as well. Another memorable guitar theme doubled by the synths.
My final say on the album is this, buy it if you like power metal, this is one of the best I've ever heard. Bands like Freedom Call deserve financial support so that hopefully one day they will play shows here in the states, where I have to suffer the likes of Simple Plan and all this other EMO garbage.