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Freedom Call is a band that has, over the past couple of years, grown in popularity. As usual, growing in popularity is not indicative of growing in talent. In fact, for Freedom Call, this is exactly the opposite. While their new albums* are just tentative attempts at hard rock and jokes on what music should be about (think new Edguy), Freedom Call gets progressively better the farther back you look. I think the reason for this is that this was originally a side project of Dan Zimmerman (drummer for Gamma Ray), who wanted to try a new side of power metal. Over time, this grew from a side project into a legitimate band of its own, and they tried to gain their own sound rather than just be a variation on Gamma Ray. This, we can agree (judging by the reviews on this site), led to disastrous results.
But enough band history, lets get to this album. I give this album a review in the 90s, not because it is good in comparison to other releases by this band, but because it is great within the confines power metal as a genre. This is not a "their best work ever" review, this leans more towards the side of "one of the best power metal albums ever". I choose this approach because I hope that this review will help introduce a great album to power metal fans rather than validate the opinions of existing Freedom Call fans (which, if they wish to, they can do by themselves on their own time). I will, then, not compare songs to other FC (Freedom Call) songs and I will not make obscure references to band members other than founders Chris Bay (lead vocalist) and Dan Zimmerman (drummer).
So after an admittedly long (but hopefully necessary) preamble, lets talk about the music, and why it is one of the great power metal albums of the late 1990s. The album, thankfully, avoids one of the mistakes that many metal bands (including later FC) make: painfully pretentious intros. This album instead goes straight into the first song. Don't get me wrong, some intros can set a mood very well, but in the end, they stand in the way between the listener and the songs and in power meta, the individual songs are more important than the album as a whole. Now, there is an intro to this album, but it is included in "Over the Rainbow" (the first track), it is short, and it actually works within the track rather than from the outside (it transitions well into the song itself to the point where it becomes part of the song).
There are two things I will talk about in this review: First, why this is a solid power metal album (pretty much what it sounds like). The second is why this is an original album (how it is refreshingly different from other power metal). To start off with, this album is pretty intense. Expect a lot of double-bass drumming, fast guitar parts, high pitched vocals in the style of Helloween for the verses and big choral performances (with every member in the band singing) for the choruses. Expect pre-choruses that involve lower pitched harmonies that lead into fuller choruses with everybody singing. I have been told that the vocals are an acquired taste, but to me they are very similar to Michael Kiske (old Helloween). Expect a dense German accent and lyrics that make as much sense as Dragonforce's. Expect also a few slower songs (Hymn to the Brave), that still keep the big chorus concept but don't go at lightning speed.
At this point you have two options: If you are convinced that this album is worth a listen, go and get it. If you are still not sure if it's worth your time, keep reading. Next is a more detailed description of the aspects that make this album original and not just "another power metal release".
The song structure deserves to be mentioned, since it is slightly different than that of many power metal bands out there. First, I should mention that FC is not reinventing the wheel in power metal. It still has fast riffs, epic and catchy choruses and a simple verse-chorus-verse structure. The differences are minor, but important enough to make this album stand out. The first thing we note in song structures is that in several songs the choruses are introduced very late. For songs like "Over the Rainbow" and "Tears Falling", we get a verse, the pre-chorus, and when we expect a big bombastic chorus we instead are led back into another verse. We effectively end up with a verse-prechorus-verse-prechorus-chorus structure. For "Over the Rainbow" the chorus doesn't come in until the 4th minute (of a 6 minute song). This allows FC to build up tension and expectation, allowing you to enjoy the moment of the chorus much more (pretty much the musical version of foreplay). This also allows the listener to enjoy repeated listens, since they will now be expecting the chorus to come in and are kept on their toes throughout the entire song.
Another difference in song structure is the use of small breaks. "Tears Falling" is a perfect example when near the end of the song all the instruments stop, the chorus is sung 'a capella' and the instruments come in in an epic fashion to continue to the end of the song. Personally, I enjoy the break because it allows the song to repeat the effect it had in its first chorus, by suddenly exploding into it. I also understand the practical benefit to having a small break in a fast song: give the drummer a well deserved rest.
I mentioned the big choruses idea before, but I think it is necessary to expand on it, since it is one of the signatures of this band. All choruses involve an epic performance where every single band member sings his own part and the lead singer just becomes part of the group. The best moment in Freedom Call's choral history comes in at the end of Holy Knight. This song ends on a five part vocal performance with a level of technical precision and originality that I have never heard any other power metal band even approach. All songs make great use of the range and quality of vocalists in the band, with the baritone singers being a definite highlight.
But what about the riffs? Lots of people complain that most power metal bands are lacking when it comes to riffs, and I will not disagree. You will not find complex tech-death riffs or crushing doom riffs in this album, but FC has come up with their fair share of original and power-metal riffs. The opening riff for both "Holy Knight" and "Graceland" are probably the highlight guitar-wise of a band that is much more focused on vocals. I do not claim that FC's riffs are the best out there, just that after listening to the album, you will agree that more complex riffing is not only unnecessary but would also be detrimental to the sound of the band.
So why are you still reading? Go and listen to the album already!
Highlights: Over the Rainbow, Tears Falling, Fairyland, Holy Knight.
Songs to Avoid: We are One (just a cheap copy of Helloween's "I Want Out")
*up to Dimensions; as I write this review, Legend of the Shadowking has not come out yet