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There’s a tinge of irony, or perhaps a bit of unexpected honesty in selecting a title like “New Religion” for this album. One might think that the core of Primal Fear’s old guard, speed metal loving audience have been witness to a horrid heresy flying in the face of their beloved creeds, given the heavily negative reaction that it received in many quarters. However, the truth of the matter is that all bands will eventually drift a bit in their search to keep their sound fresh and explore their style a bit, and the changes that have come here are not radically abrupt, but a logical outcome of 2 albums of evolution away from the mostly dogmatic adherence to late 80s Judas Priest that were their early days.
In essence, this is a somewhat further development of the modernized character of “Seven Seals” where the overall atmosphere is a little darker and more somber. Keyboards play a varying role, but this time have moved a little further in the direction of an Industrial aesthetic, but thankfully not the wildly dominant one that seeped into Nocturnal Rites confused little studio offering “The 8th Sin”, which closely coincided with this album. There is a greater plurality of ballads and a slightly stronger tendency towards longer, epic songwriting, but the overall listen is still solidly entrenched in the speed metal zone, though perhaps taking on an aura more comparable to that of Seven Witches rather than the vintage “Painkiller” sound of “Nuclear Fire” and “Black Sun”.
It is probably not fair to bring up continual comparisons to Nocturnal Rites, but in spite of the sizable differences in the histories of the two bands, where they’ve ended up here is a primary example of the right vs. the wrong way to modernize this style. Rather than ruining a tried and true formula of fist pumping riff dominated Metal with a half-hearted attempt at equally straddling the new gothic/industrial craze, Primal Fear have incorporated these newer devices in sort of a gimmicky way, showcasing a few key points of variance and keeping the main course otherwise fully intact. A good example of this occurs in the title song “New Religion”, where a few synthesizer sections bearing a little similarity to Lacuna Coil sort of come and go, acting more like a pleasant window dressing to a solid stain glass work of vintage Priest worship.
Interestingly enough, where the aforementioned younger Speed/Power Metal outfit suffered on “The 8th Sin”, Mat Sinner and company have excelled. Sure, there are plenty of helpings of classic high tempo goodness in “Face Of Emptiness”, “Blood On Your Hands” and “Too Much Time” that rival the best moments on “Devil’s Ground”, and “World On Fire” is among the catchiest fits of melodic glory this band has conceived of, but where this album really stands out is the ballad work. “The Man (That I Don’t Know)” takes sort of a melancholy remembrance route, droning out dark riffs that mesh a Judas Priest aesthetic with a Candlemass texturing, and here Ralf really steals the show by invoking both Halford and Messiah at various points perfectly. The controversial duet with Simone Simons dubbed “Every Time It Rains” is stylistically the biggest divergence for this outfit, going a bit into newer Within Temptation and Evanescence territory with some of the percussive and ambient effects, but the overall feel of the song is still conducive to a metallic mode of balladry, and the contrast between Ralf’s warlock-like howls and Simone’s angelic opera sounds makes for a very original experience.
The top pick of this album, and arguably the creative peak of Primal Fear’s career, lay in the 8 minute plus, 3 part epic “Fighting The Darkness”. Although “Nuclear Fire” will remain my favorite release out of their catalog, this song outclasses any other song heard from them up to this point. Comparisons might be made to Metalium’s “Illuminated” off the “As One” album with the recurring principle themes and the gradual yet spellbinding variations surrounding them, and perhaps also to Gamma Ray’s “Lake Of Tears”. However, the faster and more complex middle section, littered with melodic lead guitar lines and tasteful synthesizer work, listens like a modern homage to “Heaven And Hell”. One might chalk it up to my own sense of nostalgia at the loss of one of the founding fathers of this art form, but even before the passing of Ronnie Dio, I could still hear bits and pieces of his work with both Tony Iommi and Vivian Campbell in this song. But despite it being a sort of bittersweet acknowledgment of his universal impact on the Metal scene, every great song tends to bring out the subjective emotions of each individual.
In spite of this album being universally trashed by most of the band’s core fan base, “New Religion” is a cut above several of their earlier works, though as a whole not quite the magical display of apocalyptic angst that “Nuclear Fire” was. There’s some mild gothic/industrial detailing her and there, but the end result is fairly comparable to the mild changes that Iron Maiden went through when they transitioned out of the “Piece Of Mind” and “Powerslave” era into that of “Somewhere In Time”, and its quality in comparison to former albums also mirrors that of Maiden’s later 80s efforts. Change isn’t always a bad thing, provided that it doesn’t completely destroy precedence completely or abandon the paradigm that keeps metal distinct from all the other stuff out there.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on May 19, 2010.