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It seemed like only a decade ago that an album bearing the ill-conceived title Stairway to Fairyland arrived in my radar, and I was pleasantly inoculated towards its charms, as a long standing fan of similar German power metal like Helloween or Gamma Ray. Considering the band's own ties to those other acts (Dan Zimmerman drums for both Gamma Ray and Freedom Call, and former guitarist Sascha Gerstner went off to Helloween where he has met with some success), I was impressed by their similar style of happy, positively-charged power metal anthem. And then the years rolled on, with the band releasing four more full-lengths, none of which really stuck its neck very far out, all clinging to that safe, slim, accessible stretch of ground that separates Rhapsody and Helloween.
It's not for a lack of trying, as the members of Freedom Call are all talented within their instruments. In particular, I have always really enjoyed Chris Bay's voice. It's soothing, but at the same time, picks up a lot of bite when he rips off into his higher chorus climaxes. The real issue with Legend of the Shadowking, the band's 6th opus, is that the songs feel so played out that they lack much of the inspiration this style once possessed in spades. It all feels like too well-traveled ground, from the chorus of "Out of the Ruins" which sounds exactly like Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" sped up into a symphonic power metal adaptation, to the screamin' Maiden meets AC/DC "Thunderstruck" melody that inaugurates "Thunder God". As there are 14, full-length tracks on this album, it's a lot of mediocrity to pour through, with only a few surprises tucked within. "Dark Obsession" has a mesmerizing, brooding swell of dark atmosphere compounded by the flourish of operatic vocals and the downt-turn of Bay's vocals in the verse. "The Darkness" puts a pretty mean rhythmic edge to a Helloween style cruiser, and "The Shadowking" and "Kingdom of Madness" both have their moments, if you like a more balls out 80s approach to your metal rooted as much in Saxon or Accept as their more obvious German influence.
Through it all, the band maintains its constant use of synthesizers and Queen-like chorus vocals to add the 'epic' polish to its rather bland conceptual saga and almost painfully cliched lyrics about rainbows and Arthurian legend. Is this some kind of crime in the stagnating power metal universe? Certainly not, and the Legend of the Shadowking is by no means a bad album...it just fails to compel one back into its nearly 60 minutes of acceptable material, from the few songs that are decent to the many near-misses that populate its vaunted halls of myth. I drew the conclusion through my experience with this album that Freedom Call is a band capable of far more...you can hear it in all the spaces here where the interest level wanes to the point of tuning out. So go on and kick our asses next time.
Highlights: Dark Obsession, The Darkness, The Shadowking (basically, any song with a title that implies the opposite of light)