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Every now and then you run across one of those interesting albums that didn't grab your attention much at first, but gradually keeps appearing in your mind after hearing it. You find yourself humming a tune and racking your brain trying to remember what that unforgettable melody is from, and before you know it you're listening to that song again, and then the whole album. Defenders of the Crown by Human Fortress is one of those albums, a sleeper of sorts, if you will. It may not seem to stand out much initially, but give it time and it will grow on you.
While I consider myself a power metal fan, I haven't found much symphonic power metal or modern power metal I've really liked. I've always been more into the straightforward, old fashioned guitar-heavy kind of power metal inspired by the likes of Iron Maiden, Helloween, and Warlord - the kind that gets your foot stompin' and beckons you to sing along. Human Fortress' sophomore effort is just this brand of vintage power metal, bringing in the classical influences, featuring medieval-themed lyrics, and delivering a raw, energetic performance. Though most of the songs are mid-paced in tempo, there is an unmistakable vitality to every track that either makes you feel like you're out on the battlefield or overlooking a vast kingdom from on high.
First and foremost, as other reviewers have noted, the vocals by Joti Parcharidis are phenomenal. At times he reminds me of Mathias Blad from Falconer, at other times he calls to mind Manowar's Eric Adams, and still other times he sounds reminiscent of Edu Falaschi of Angra. The bottom line is this guy is versatile and extremely talented. His vocal melodies in the suitably epic "Gladiator of Rome" are something to behold for yourself. The choruses are probably one of the main reasons I like this record so much, in fact. Aside from the aforementioned track, there are several other songs here that are just too fun to resist singing along to, especially the last four.
Of course, a large part of what makes this album feel so sublime is the instrumentation going on behind Joti's voice. Torsten Wolf and Volker Trost can fire off thunderous riffs and melodic leads as well as any other power metal band, and Laki Zaios can pound the hell out of his kit with an intensity like that of Painkiller-era Judas Priest, but what really makes Defenders of the Crown an infectious gem is how everything coheres so well in the songwriting department. Unlike some keyboardists, Dirk Marquardt does not attempt to be another guitar in the mix, he provides an ambient rhythm primarily, with occasional solo parts that have more of a minstrel style than the 'virtuoso' style of a lot of power metal and prog metal keyboard players. In these tunes, everything has its rightful place.
If there's a downside to Defenders, it has to be the production, which is sadly a bit too rough and subpar for music of this caliber. It's not anything that will really detract all that much from enjoying the songs, but it certainly is too flat and choppy sounding in places. I imagine with a better production, this would have gotten a higher score from those who have reviewed it, myself included.
Start to finish, there's not a single song I skip past on this album, something I've found to be relatively rare for post-2000 power metal releases. Just as the cover art gives the appearance of belonging to a Middle Age tome of wisdom and tales of bravery, the music on Defenders of the Crown is a comprehensive pilgrimage in its own way, kicking off with knights, singing of gladiators and battles, and ultimately leading up to "The Valiant", a beautiful and expansive rock ballad telling of a courageous and virtuous departed soul. A fitting and cathartic end to an album that finds value in the smaller things of life, without dragons, without demons, without unicorns, but no less rich in its vision. If you're a fan of power metal, you owe it to yourself to give this one a try.
On Human Fortress' debut album 'Lord of Earth and Heavens Heir' (2001) review I betted that their second album will be better. Now I've listened to 'Defenders of the Crown' for a few weeks and I can tell you that I was right. While 'Lord...' had a few songs that will be classics, it wasn't thoroughly excellent. While 'Defenders...' is still lacking on some stages, it's a better record.
The most clear thing, that is somewhat lacklustre, is the production. Tommy Newton has many merits under his belt, but the production is the worst thing here. The sound is not powerful and it's also a bit flat. This doesn't kick as much as it should. The band is much more striking, than this production gives out. Every instrument is audible, but mixing is flat. Tom drums sound cardboard boxey and snare is sometimes a bit buried. However, points for keeping it real and rock. I can live with this. Easily.
Musically speaking this is a masterpiece. When compared to more modern sounding debut, this one it feels like the band have returned to the roots of metal yet still retained their individualilty. 'Defenders...' is more heavy metal than power/prog metal heard on the debut. Of course there's a lot of power metal and playing is dazzling; while it is catchy, it is also very technical, especially guitars and bass. Drumming is solid, but maybe the production ruins something, making it sound drab compared to other musicians' work. Medieval atmosphere is stronger now. Better synths emulating flute and other instruments and a real violin add folky touches while choir adds epic feel with horns and such. This is constructed and performed masterfully, so this never crosses the line to pompous. The band portrait lyrical themes nicely, very well, indeed and songs vary from epic (eg. the title song, 'The Valiant') to folky (eg. 'Siege Tower') and action-filled ones (eg. 'Knights in Shining Armor' and 'Gladiator of Rome', 'Sacral Fire'). Life in Middle Ages was tough, so here's melancholic element, too. Human Fortress' music is surprisingly hard to depict, but I hear it like a mixture of Iron Maiden, Dio and German power metal.
Vocalist Jioti Parcharidis is a man with a great voice. He might lack some real backbone, but he can show emotions. His vocals are ferocious and that's his real gift as a singer, as is his personal voice. He sings usually in middle register, but doesn't fear higher notes. Lyrics picture life in Middle Ages and before that. No dragons in sight, but real life so this is a good change from fantasy stuff. Honorable knights and legendary Richard the Lionheart, Roman gladiators and a cunning thief star in these songs. Tales of the holy grail, warcraft and even witch hunts are some themes. Cover art is simple. Looking like an old book there's not much to see. It could be so much more, just think of Masterplan's debut album's (2003) artwork.
This is one of the best albums that has come out in this genre this year and it has all the possibilities to become a classic. While being nothing truly new musically, the band sound individual and that matters a lot in these days. This is well crafted music all the way, and that's the second important point. Melodic metal fans, try this now. This is a gem.
(originally written for archaicMetallurgy.com in 2003)
These guys mean business. Human Fortress is a German power metal band in the vein of Swedish ones like HammerFall, with midpaced war/battle anthems, catchy choruses, and Maidenesque guitar harmonies mixed with some galloping, traditional heavy metal flavored riffs. Yeah, we've all heard of bands like this before, but Human Fortress have something different about them. I can't pinpoint exactly what this band does differently from other heavy/power metal bands of their ilk, but they just have a spark about them on this album that raises them straight to the heavens, far above HammerFall and their jokey, cheesy little tunes about templars and falling hammers.
Maybe it's the vocals, handled by one Jioti Parcharidis, that are very reminiscent of a medieval bard. His voice is clear and powerful, with a bit of a gritty, rough edge that Joacim Cans or Timo Koltipelto could never muster, and he sounds fucking fantastic. He sounds quite a lot like ex-Lion's Share vocalist Anders Engberg, except his voice is far more powerful and dynamic. Another good comparison for his voice would perhaps be a slightly gruffer version of Manowar's Eric Adams, and that is a very high compliment! It's just icing on the proverbial cake when the band adds layers of operatic choirs on top of his voice to make for quite the delicious medieval banquet of heavy metal.
It could also be the varied instrumentation the band employs; blending violins with their riffs to create a very nostalgic, epic sort of sound on a few songs here that silly keyboard-wank bands like Rhapsody could learn from. The best examples of this are "Border Raid in Lions March", a fantastic, stirring fantasy epic with one of the best choruses ever penned, and the closing anthem "The Valiant", which is sort of a ballad, but it still sports some of the most powerful, emotional violin lines a metal song could ever need. The variety here adds a rich, glossy spice to the album that few other power metal albums could dream of having, and new layers of the music are revealed with each passing listen.
Or perhaps it's the production, heavier than most of HammerFall's output, with clear yet crunchy riffs, searing, mystical guitar leads, and the vocals in the forefront. The drum sound is good, although sometimes it's somewhat buried under the vocals or the guitars. The vocals might be a bit too dominant, and it'd be nice to have the guitars more in the front of the mix, but I'm not going to complain too much---the quality of the work here is just too good to bitch about things like that. Plus, the vocals are absolutely first-rate, so having them in the forefront isn't as bad as it would be for a band with a weaker vocalist.
The songs here are all varied and extremely memorable. At first listen, vocalist Pacharidis's vocal melodies are rather unorthodox and weird, and some people will never like them. But give it time to grow on you first, let it all sink in before you write the band off as flawed. After adequate listens, I now appreciate every single song on this disc, from the speedy, catchy opener "Knights in Shining Armour", to the epic, soaring "Gladiator of Rome", to the slightly annoying, but still cool 80's true metal assault of "Holy Grail Mine", and the renaissance fanfares and violin melodies of the grandiose "Border Raid in Lions March." From the colossal epic "Schattentor" to the best song on the disc, the triumphant, fist pumping "Mortal Sinful Wrath", and the extremely catchy power metal fun of "Sacral Fire", every single damn song on this disc is a winner.
This disc isn't as instantly gratifying as I wanted it to be, but repeated listens yield a great many hidden gems within it's tough exterior. Human Fortress have crafted a very memorable, catchy, mature sophomore album here, and I'll be supporting them as long as they keep this excellence up. This is a timeless, ageless classic, so go get it, now.
After a very powerful and varied debut, Human Fortress provided us with an amazing sophomore effort, during a year when a barrage of magnum opuses were either released or nearing completion to be released early the following year. With perhaps the exception of "A flame to the ground beneath", this album stands at the top of the pack due to it's highly unique sound.
Jioti's vocals have been ratcheted up a notch on this one, utilizing multiple vocal tracks to turn one powerful voice into a choir of warrior saints. Some of the most amazing combinations of lead and backup vocal tracking include the heavily choir steeped choruses of "Sacral Fire", "Mortal Sinful Wrath", and the short instrumental "Collosseum". Some of the more powerful solo voice performances include the title track, "Gladiator of Rome" and the quasi-acoustic power ballad "Siege Tower".
Most of the more active guitar solos are accomplished through guest soloists, and although the result is a great variety of lead styles, I do wish that Torsten would have played a more active role in the lead tracks. The greatest guitar solo on here is on "Mortal Sinful Wrath", although "Schattentor" is not far behind with a near equal amount of melody and flash.
The bass and drum work has also taken another step up, most notably the drums. I don't know if Apostolos Zaios took some performance enhancing drugs or something, but the high speed work done on "Mortal Sinful Wrath" and "Holy Grail Mine" is among some of the fastest and craziest drumming that I've heard. Pablo Tammen gets high ratings for his fast and agitated sounding bass work on "Sacral Fire".
The surrounding instruments have also grown to larger predominance. Dirk Marquardt has some amazing organ work at the end of "We Border Raid", in addition to some fast arpeggio lines on the chorus of "Gladiator of Rome". "We Border Raid" also has some beautiful violin work on it during the middle section that rivals the work appearing on various albums by Sirenia and The Sins of thy Beloved.
In conclusion, this is a must have for any power metal enthusiast, and will also have a good amount of crossover appeal to fans of classical music. This is one of my mandatory albums for any extended road trip, and every time I listen to it I never skip a track.