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It’s obvious these boys from Sweden have listened to their fair share of NWOBHM; but somehow, they managed to catch the Wave before it had actually subsided or had even gotten terribly stale. 1984 was the same year Cloven Hoof put out their first album, and the year before Angel Witch put out their second…certainly not a year for pioneering, but it was still in time to make this solid statement in the style. Unfortunately, though Gotham City take on a fair share of epic sensibility, they only partially escape out from underneath the downfalls that come with the NWOBHM territory: yes, they have that dreaded “hard rock” track (“Ravage in Town”), but even so it still manages to be catchy and sneaks in a pretty good minor-key metal section there in the middle. More on that later; for now, I’ll describe their overall sound.
If you heard the Black Writs EP from 1983 (who am I kidding, most likely no one has), the first thing you’ll say is “HOLY SHIT THEY GOT RID OF THAT AWFUL SINGER.” Yes, the bland, bored-sounding Ola Ohlsson was out on his ass, as far as I know never to sing again. Sure he hit the notes, but with about as much enthusiasm as a eunuch shows a snatch. For those of you who haven’t had the misfortune of hearing the wet-paper-bag that is Ohlsson, he completely ruins Black Writs, which otherwise might have been much better. In his place, we have Anders Zackrisson, who is very competent and even manages to sound like he wants to be there. He has a voice that’s on the higher end of mid-range, and hits some pretty high notes, without ever straying into falsetto territory. He’s forceful as well, and makes effective use of multi-tracking, though on some songs, like the closer “Borderline”, it’s a tad overused. He doesn’t have a terribly original personality or anything, he’s no Bruce Dickinson, but he’s both skillful and passionate, and that’s more than one can reasonably expect from an unknown band like this. He actually reminds me a bit of a higher-pitched, cleaned-up Paul Di’Anno, except with less balls and more ability. The guitars on these songs are pretty damn simple; the riffs gallop, they trot, they do the dual-guitar harmony sections, and they pretty much do the NWOBHM thing with barely a frill to be seen. That said, they manage to be very catchy, and at certain points manage to be quite moving. Special mention must be given to the solos, however, for being interesting, catchy, and never outstaying their welcome. The bass is more present than in most bands, but aside from a few neat bass licks here and there, or that cool opening bass riff on “Ravage in Town”, it doesn’t do a whole lot. Now I’m not a drummer, but nothing stands out much to me in that department, one way or the other. The production is a bit thin, but you can hear the instruments just fine, and the mix is good; the vocals don’t bury the guitars here in the least. Better than a lot of NWOBHM, and nothing to complain about.
The main problem with this album is it’s uneven; same with a lot of other NWOBHM albums, such as Cloven Hoof’s debut. Unfortunately this means I’ll have to do a bit of the dreaded track-by-track, because a simple overview-with-highlights wouldn’t do this album justice. The Unknown opens up with a roaring number, “Swords and Chains”, with its great catchy riff. They do this neat thing where they harmonize it, but the harmony riff jumps around the main one on each repetition instead of just playing the same thing every time, which keeps it interesting. Then Zackrisson comes in, and the verse melody is good, as it the riff underneath it. The multi-tracked vocals on the chorus are really effective, too (or they could even be backing vocals from another band member, as they don’t sound exactly alike) “Riding to catch the sun!” I wish I had the lyrics, since there are certainly some cool bits like that. Definitely epic material. The tempo slows down for the after-chorus, and then right before it swings into the dual-guitar-harmony section, there’s this great bit where the guitars hold a final note and it’s just the singer with an “oohhhh” and the bass; it’s very moody and even atmospheric. The subsequent dual-guitar-harmony section is good, but like so many of its ilk, it outstays its welcome by a couple of repetitions. Thankfully, immediately thereafter, there’s a great reprise of the main riff, but they put this neat variation on it, and the tedium is forgotten. Afterwards they go into a cool march section (Cloven Hoof was fond of those as well), before exploding into a nice catchy solo, which is short but effective. A final reprieve of the chorus and the main riff, and that’s it. Overall it’s a tad overlong, but every time I just start to get bored, an interesting part will crop up, to grab my attention again.
The next song, “The Beast Will Burn”, is strong as well, and has this neat section where they modulate through keys, after which comes the reprise of the ominous main riff, and another of those catchy “short but effective” solos. Fewer great sections than the first, but it also doesn’t drag at all, unlike its predecessor; things pretty much balance out between the two, and I’d say they’re about even.
Third up is “See How It Flies”, and at first I admit I discounted this track as mediocre. Unfortunately the two before it are both great, catchy, immediately accessible tracks, and this one is more moody and urgent, with some cool sci-fi lyrics about a UFO, I think (I’m only guessing based on what I can understand). “It was right there, out there somewhere in the atmosphere!” The problem is, after being grabbed right away by the previous tracks, this one just tended to go right over my head; it galloped along and left my attention wandering. After many subsequent close listens for the purposes of writing this review, however, my opinion has gone up by leaps and bounds, and this track is now one of my favorites. Its subtlety is a welcome relief after the simplicity of its predecessors. The noodly descending guitar lead at the beginning is interesting and unusually complex for this band; the soaring chorus is great, with the slight echo added that gives Zackrisson’s voice just a bit of an ethereal touch. “Flying in space, a long way from Mars!” When it slows down right in the middle (“so lonely in the night, it’s like the Mars flight”), it’s really moving. The transition to the fast solo section is a bit abrupt and breaks the mood, but the solo itself is good enough that such a minor fault is quickly forgotten. The strength of the track is its variation: the urgency of the verses, the lighter, soaring quality of the chorus, and the moodiness of the middle section all serve to forge a strong, interesting song.
Well, now we have “Ravage in Town”, the dreaded “hard rock” track I mentioned in the opening paragraph, but thankfully it’s really not too bad. The beginning and ending are really rock-driven, but they’re catchy and fast enough that it doesn’t matter much (luckily we drew the “metasong about rock” rather than the far worse “heartbreak is hard song”). The opening bass riff is nice, and at first you think this isn’t even going to be the rockish song, but then the verse comes in (I feel it in my heavy metal soul!”), and it’s definitely hard rock, with the chorus proclaiming some crap about how “it’s gonna be alright” and “c’mon everybody”. Sorry, Gotham City, but it’s not “gonna be alright” I don’t really want to “c’mon” at the moment. But then this weird slow middle section comes in, it’s actually really good, with its neat harmonized moody minor-key riff that doesn’t sound like it even belongs in the same song as the verse or the chorus; and the cool stop-start part that comes next continues in the same mood. Then BAM the solo comes in and we’re back to the hard rock riff, but with a minor-key solo, which turns that riff into something much more metal sounding, but just when you think the song is going in a nice direction, here comes the chorus again to fuck that direction right up. This seems to me, more than anything else, like another moody Gotham City song trapped in the body of a typical NWOBHM hard-rock-single attempt. At the end there’s even a moody “ooohhhhh” part that’s sung with a little warbly guitar in the background; wasn’t he just telling me just ten seconds ago in the chorus that it’s gonna be alright? Maybe he’s bemoaning his suspension of artistic integrity, or something. It seriously sounds like a totally different song, and it’s this lucky variation that saves “Ravage in Town” from a fast trip to Skip City. It probably got them signed, but I guess the band couldn’t bear to churn out something that was complete hard rock schlock. Good for them.
Now that we’ve got that nonsense out of the way without too much pain, here comes “Going Insane”, and we’re back to NWOBHM with almost five minutes of galloping mediocrity. It only has a decent middle section, unlike the totally interesting one the last one did; pretty much just “blah” the whole way through. Not horrible, but not interesting at all and it goes on for too long. The riff at the very end is quite cool, though. NEXT!
At last we have the mighty “Battle Blade”, which if you couldn’t guess from the title is an epic number; it plods moodily along, proclaiming all sorts of cool clichés about fighting to the last man and riding to victory. “IN TIME YOU’LL SEE YOU WILL BOW TO ME!” Yes, this certainly is epic, and probably the best track on here. The chorus has this neat multi-tracked part that’s almost a round, with different parts singing in different but complementary time with one another. It’s always nice to see a band using multi-tracked vocals to do more than just simple harmony. There’s a typical dual-guitar-harmony section, but unlike most of its kind, this one doesn’t outstay its welcome at all. Another chorus, and then it speeds up, and there’s an awesome harmonized solo, holy crap, we’re charging into battle after the long ride to the battlefield! We’re in a major key now, something about Vikings coming over to conquer and slay (how I wish I had the lyrics), “black wind, red sky, praise today, FOR TOMORROW YOU DIE!” Hot shit on a cold day this rules, it sounds like something early Manowar would’ve written if they hadn’t been pretentious or cheesy at all (in other words, not Manowar). Somehow this track packs an epic amount of epic into itself, while still managing to be the shortest on the album (excepting the outro). This is definitely a good thing, since not one part of it gets old. I think I listened to it at least four times while writing that last paragraph, and I’m still ready for more.
As if the band realizes tracks four and five were weak, they follow them up with two great ones; first came “Battle Blade”, and now “Learn from Your Leaders”. This is the closest thing to a ballad we have on here, and since luckily we already took care of the hard rock single, it’s about fighting, killing, and soldiers’ loyalty and camaraderie rather than love clichés (don’t ask, don’t tell). This is the longest track on the album, clocking in at just over seven minutes, and it contrasts the softer sections with the heavy bludgeoning sections very well. Every heavy metal band and their brother have written a song similar to this, with the slow buildup to the crushing main riff. I’m not going to dissect this song as it’s quite long and goes through quite a few sections, but I’d like to point out a few highlights at least. It’s interesting how it starts out, unlike most of these types of songs, with a heavy instrumental section, and only then slows down into a soft section for the verse. It picks up after “we’re standing together right beside you,” with the one guitar going “BUMBUMBUMBUM” and the other one comes in with a “BA-NAH!” Simple, but it really works (don’t worry, I won’t syllabalize guitar parts again). Special mention also must be given to the solo during one of the soft sections; somehow Gotham City managed a delicate, touching solo in the midst of epic, crushing heavy metal. Right after it comes a new riff, that just slays with heavy plodding grandeur, making me want to thrust my fists into the air in time with each chord. By this point you may have realized that this song doesn’t really sound much like NWOBHM anymore, again more like something Manowar might’ve written. Overall one of the strongest tracks on the album.
After that comes a bit of a letdown, with “Borderline”. This track is pretty much “Going Insane” if it weren’t so mediocre. Fast and catchy it gallops right along, reminding me of something Stormwitch might’ve written. Definitely not as good as the previous two tracks, but it still works in its own way. I have to say though, that hearing the word “borderline” sung with the same harmonized multi-track gets rather old. Where’s the interesting multi-tracking like on “Battle Blade”? There is another neat harmonized guitar solo like on that song, though, which is nice. Basically “Borderline” is an average track, and though not amazing, it doesn’t hurt the album at all. I just wish they’d have stuck it in somewhere in the middle, leaving “Learn from Your Leaders” in the stronger final position.
And last but definitely least, we have the outro. It’s got some weird distorted vocals with some weird background noise, but as it’s only 42 seconds long it doesn’t have a chance to get boring. I have to admit the laughing voice at the end is pretty cool. “The Unknown” isn’t bad for what it is, and I don’t skip it, but I just lament the misuse of the title track position. Isn’t the title track of an album supposed to be one of its strongest?
Well, all in all, The Unknown is a fine effort, and is only slightly marred by a couple of weak tracks. It hints at the epic heavy metal direction that a lot of NWOBHM bands would take in the later years, like Cloven Hoof did. The cover art even displays a badly drawn barbarian in the finest epic heavy metal tradition. Unfortunately I guess this album was “unknown” in its day (har har), as to me the name “Gotham City” might sound cool, but I doubt Marvel Comics would’ve seen its copyright infringement the same way. The band didn’t garner much success and broke up after releasing two more demos, which I’m actually going to try and track down. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to listen to “Battle Blade” again.