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US power metal isn't exactly a well-known genre, even among certain types of metalheads. Sitting on the fence between heavy metal and thrash metal, the scene never quite gained the respect it deserved from either of the two scenes it spawned from, not as accessible as heavy nor as straightforwardly punishing as thrash, and the by the early '90s, US power metal was besieged on all sides by the movement of thrash away from melody towards death, groove, and (later, at least in the US) black metal; the rise of European power metal, linked to the US subgenre in name only; and the grunge holocaust. What a strange time, then, for the Floridian band Iced Earth, to release a traditional USPM album like Night of the Stormrider, and what a surprise for it to be one of the genre's greatest classics.
While many of their contemporaries were stripping their sound back, trying to sound more "honest" (minimalistic) in the wake of alternative's backlash against anything that could possibly be seen as pretentious, Iced Earth took the opposite path, infusing Night of the Stormrider with that elusive sense of grandeur and overwhelming hugeness, that when properly executed, can only be described as "epic". The beginning of opener "Angels' Holocaust" is the most obvious example, with choirs and brass stacked atop a monster riff in one of the most distinctive (not to mention bombastic) introductions to an album in metal history.
Night of the Stormrider is a concept album, with a story about some man who is betrayed by religion and turned by dark forces into something called a "Stormrider" to destroy the world, but the lyrics are pretty forgettable and the music stands alone whether you know them or not. Except for two very brief acoustic interludes, there are no passages that do nothing but "tell the story", nor are there any intrusive fluff bits like spoken word samples or sound effects. Each song has its own identity and is strong in its own right, even when separated from the others. This album is first and foremost about the music, not window dressing.
The production (at least on my remastered copy), is just about perfect. The guitar tone is strong and gritty, but sharp and agile, with quick attack and decay, and a pleasing, thrashy scooped-midrange sound (remember kids, more distortion is not always better!). The drums are well-controlled and well-recorded. The snare hits hard, the cymbals ring out, and the bass drum sounds like a bass drum, not a plastic bucket or a loud clicking noise. Keyboards are used only when needed, and not in excess, as befits a guitar-driven album. The bass is often missing in action, but Dave Abell is not a very interesting bassist anyway.
The real highlight of this album are the riffs. Unlike Iced Earth's recent offerings, Night of the Stormrider is filled to bursting with catchy, thrashy, timeless riffs courtesy of Jon Schaffer, ranging from majestic midpaced gallopers to furious skull-splitters (the main riff of "Stormrider" is absolutely ruthless), and all of them are good. Lead guitarist Randall Shawver is adequate but not exceptional, while drummer Brent Smedley does an excellent job behind the kit. The weak link in this lineup is John Greely, who wants to be a Halford clone but can't really hack it. His mid-ranged vocals are often awkward with some strange enunciation and obnoxiously prominent terminal Rs (most American singers drop terminal Rs for a reason--they sound really dumb when sung), and his falsetto shrieks are thin and weak. Sometimes his renditions of songs are preferable to performances by his successor Matt Barlow by virtue of lacking Barlow's over-emoting (Barlow is quite possibly the biggest ham in metal), but he's just barely adequate.
Opener "Angels' Holocaust" deserves its classic status in the Iced Earth catalog, with an unforgettable symphonic opening dovetailing into an acoustic section that builds up to lead into a riff massacre. Jon Schaffer is on fire, pumping out beastly thrash riffs that thunder out of the speakers and go right for your throat, Smedley keeping pace, deftly and seamlessly switching between normal beats and double bass to suit the rhythm of the riffs. John Greely actually gets the Halford scream right a couple of times, and the occasional interjection of keyboards gives it that epic flair.
After that warmup, you're treated to the relentless, monumental RIFF MONSTER known as "Stormrider".The intro is kind of bleh, with tinkling acoustic guitars and Greely at his dorkiest. Suddenly a jarring power chord and double bass roll roar like thunder, as if to announce that Iced Earth are about to go into Heavy Fucking Metal Take No Prisoners mode, and the riff to end all riffs rips forth. It descends like a storm of sawblades, harsh and jagged, so malevolent as to be downright brutal, pure malice tranformed into music. Schaffer himself takes the mic, and his grunts are threatening enough to work and kept back in the mix to not overhsadow the guitars, and there's a nice yell-along chorus of "Grab on! Ride on! Stormrider! Stormrider!" that must be a highlight at live shows. The following riffs are equally boot-to-ass, running over you like an out-of-control train and pounding your brain into paste, and the sick, mocking parody of an Iron Maiden guitar harmony is delightfully evil sounding. This is power metal with POWER--Helloween and Stratovarius are cowering in the corner somewhere, wetting their leather pants and praying to the unicorn fairy queen that they may be one day be this bad-ass.
"Desert Rain" is nominally the "accessible" track (a video was made for it, but no single), although it doesn't sound like it was stolen from the rejects pile of a hair band like Toxik's "Pain and Misery". The riffs are catchier and more Metallica-like than usual, although not repetitive, and Greely and Schaffer do a bit of call-and-response, but their voices aren't different enough for this to work as well as it did in the Barlow era (compare to "Burnt Offerings"). The song has a sort of Middle-Eastern feel, with an odd mode being used for the massive, catchy, almost Euro-power fanfare chorus (thankfully with a decent riff and without Euro-power double pedal masturbation). Dave Abell wakes up for the quiet bit in the bridge, playing a few nice licks before disappearing beneath the riffs again. The chorus is repeated some more in the fadeout if it didn't stick the first time.
The final highlight is "Travel in Stygian" (because no album with epic pretensions can go without a really long closer), which lasts over nine minutes and doesn't waste a moment. Schaffer goes riff crazy, blasting riffs one after the other (fifteen unique riffs in total), and your head will bang, or your foot will tap, but you will somehow move in concert to these colossal, pummeling barrages of chords--they're just unstoppable. Here the aggression of thrash, the melodiousness of traditional metal, and a dash of prog combine in perfect synchronicity, as the song snakes through numerous changes in tempo and intensity, The guitar playing is not only aggressive but extremely complex, Schaffer blazing through runs of several chords like notes in a guitar solo and playing convoluted triplet-based rhythms at almost inhuman speed. The drumming is spot-on, never too intense or too slack for any given moment. Several minutes of instrumental acrobatics feel like only one or two, as most of it is spent on exploring crazy rhythms and tempo changes rather than noodly solos. Keyboards chime in for the chorus with a tasteful ambience that frames the riffs rather than overpowering them, until a piano takes over with a sorrowful passage that concludes the song and the album. Sprawling, awe-inspiring, and virtually flawless, "Travel in Stygian" is definitely one of the best metal songs ever written.
There are a couple of lesser cuts, like "Mystical End", whose upbeat, almost joyous feel is out of character for the album, and where John Greely sounds like a teenage boy, singing through his nose, dragging out those Rs, and yelling "EVERYONE'S IN GRAVE DANGER" in such a ridiculous manner as to invite giggling. It's not bad, just not as good as the rest, much like "The Path I Choose", which is almost 6 minutes of generic triplet doldrums of the kind which Jon Schaffer would become infamous for in the second half of the '90s and beyond. "Pure Evil" would have been great if not for "Travel in Stygian", because it basically sounds like "Travel in Stygian Lite", with many riffs that are suspiciously similar to riffs from its bigger brother. The acoustic segues "Before the Vision" and "Reaching the End" are extremely short and pretty much disposable.
Being both epic and viciously heavy can be a careful balancing act, and Iced Earth walk the tightrope perfectly. Every progressive, power, or traditional metal band should listen to this album, for a reminder of how to kick ass and take names, and every thrash revivalist band should also take note, to avoid the one-trick pony "fast riff and another fast riif and another fast riff" school of songwriting that seems to be dooming the genre to just regurgitate old Slayer riffs until everyone loses interest. Despite all the things Iced Earth has done wrong in later years (and there are many), this album stands as a true classic--powerful, grandiose, versatile, and focused.
I would recommend Night of the Stormrider to just about any metal fan. It has the right combination of all the things that make good metal, and very little filler. All meat, no gristle. Buy it right now.