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The power metal revival of the late 90s built up to an eventual explosion of greatness, culminating in a wide array of impressive bands putting out certifiable magnum opuses in rabid succession between 1999 and 2002. Coming in amid the expansion of the genre's possibilities into symphonic and progressive directions was Primal Fear with their own brand of 80s influenced speed metal conservatism. In some respects, their sound could be viewed as a slightly similar variation on the early works of Helloween and Gamma Ray (the latter being vocalist Ralf Scheepers' former band), but their core sound hearkens back to the earlier 80s before the subtle neo-classical influences injected by said projects came into being, giving off more of a traditional sound similar to Running Wild, Grave Digger and Accept, all of them sharing the slightly more British character of the early 80s and taking much of their notes from Judas Priest's high octane approach in particular.
Some of the bands putting out classics during this time period hit their pinnacle early on, but Primal Fear didn't truly unleash their full potential until the 3rd installment of their ongoing mission to propagate the old ways with an updated production, namely "Nuclear Fire". This is where all inhibitions are cast to the wind and the culmination of primitive, pre-thrash metal rage and raw vocal intensity collide with a fairly virtuosic edge offered up by newly recruited axe swinger Henny Wolter, whose blazing leads provide a somewhat more nimble variation on the typical Tipton vs. Downing character of German speed/power dueling leads. Nevertheless, the key ingredient to this shock-wave of melody and riffs is the vocal work of Ralf Scheepers, who basically outdoes all previous and subsequent vocal efforts at several key points, most notably the sheer amount of high ranged shrieks amid a fairly predictable and symmetrical mode of song creation.
From the very beginning of things, there is absolutely no beating around the bush, as one of this band's most powerful and well-known fanfare "Angel In Black" kicks things off in a similar fashion to how "Iron Fist" kicked off the Motorhead album by the same name. The principle guitar riff takes its cues from the riveting approach of Priest's "Painkiller", but turns on the hooks with the best of them once the chorus ensues, all but challenging their counterparts in Gamma Ray over who can write the better sing-along anthem. Similar fits of intensity with more of a basic speed metal approach (ergo not as many overt hooks to compete with the pummeling riff work) can be found in "Fire On The Horizon" and "Back From Hell', while the pulverizing fit of galloping mayhem that is "Fight The Fire" almost crosses over into Teutonic thrash territory. Throughout the furious exchange of speed and occasional ebbs in the flow Scheepers all but launches his vocal chords clear out of his throat as he channels Halford's most impressive vocal feats circa 1984.
Not a band to be stuck totally on speed (though one will note the greater number of overt speeders on here in comparison to subsequent albums), Primal Fear does take time to slow things down and inject some variety into the equation. A well placed and looming keyboard intro to kick off a solid homage to mid 80s Accept in "Now Or Never", a serene and melancholy ballad with a haunting acoustic line in "Bleed For Me", and a shuffling cruiser with a slight hint of 70s rock sensibilities in "Kiss Of Death" are all representative of a move away from the more derivative character of their earliest works, which are largely what feed into the notion that the band are an outright Judas Priest clone. Likewise, the upper-mid tempo cruiser "Red Rain" ushers in some fetching harmonized guitar work and gives off a heroes on horseback anthem vibe not all that different from Sabbath and Dio's archetype rocker "Neon Knights".
And yet, much like a number of great albums, the most memorable and fulfilling listening experience to be found on here is on the title track "Nuclear Fire". This song shows the band paying a very direct tribute to Scheepers' Gamma Ray roots, trucking along at a pace not all that far from the song that first introduced his collaboration with Kai Hansen "Lust For Life". This is among the simpler speeders to be heard on this album and functions more through hooks than through fancy vocals and outright Malmsteen emulation from the guitars, though Scheepers doesn't relent in the intensity department, nor do Wolter or Liebing for that matter. The chorus is where this baby just comes together and refuses to be forgotten, though sadly Scheepers and company haven't really used it heavily in the live setting.
The general consensus regarding Primal Fear is that any one of the first 4 albums will give an equally valid representation of their capability as a band, but reality doesn't quite reflect this. In contrast to their contemporaries Paragon who maintained a solid output with no outright stand alone album to define them as a band, this outfit basically planted their eagle adorned flag on this one. While they are still putting out an impressive mixture of old school metal with a number of modern twists, this is the album to get for anyone looking to introduce themselves to this band. It stands toe to toe with any number of classic German speed/power albums from this time period, including but not limited to "Powerplant", "Unification", "The Grave Digger" and "The Rivalry". Make haste to the nearest bomb shelter, for the nuclear fires to Judgment Day are upon us.
[new review, first one written on March 16th, 2004]
...but also the best thing EVER to come out of metal's big "resurrection". Rhapsody, Sonata Arctica, Iron Savior, or more recent works by the earlier established Gamma Ray, Helloween and Stratovarius - they're all respectable on their own, but here comes the vicious spine-ripper of a speed metal fucken BEAST that leaves them all coughing in the dust, and doomed to die from heavy radiation exposure.
Holy shit. The progression that the sophomore 'Jaws of Death' made from the debut may have hinted slightly at the power this third effort would behold, but still I didn't quite expect it to be this amazingly no-frills, in-your-face and just plain *RIPPING*. That's the keyword here. This is the ONLY disc ever to give the original 'Painkiller' (that many a band is still trying to emulate today) a real challenge. Still nothing is done to reinvent the wheel here exactly, most of it has been done before and bla fucking bla - but you know, if a solid ol' speed metal formula ain't broke, don't fix it - plus no one could ever execute it as well, or even as viciously as this. What you'll instantly notice about this album in comparison to the earlier PF discs is that 1. the songs are generally faster - and that's keeping in mind they were pretty fast earlier too. 2. the guitar work is a LOT faster - the addition of axeman Henny Wolter proves to be a wise decision and together with Stefan Leibing turns out if perhaps not the most *technical*, then the most balls-out crushing rhythm and lead work ever, which is aided by 3. the guitar tone - holy FUCKING shit!!! Seriously, my goodness, is this brutal or what?! I'm having trouble explaining it, because it doesn't really sound like anything else I've heard - neither Painkiller, nor any other PF albums - but imagine something like a washed-up (but not to an Iron Savior extent) and clarified 'Walls of Jericho', made even sharper, heavier and ripping but still keeping the "meaty-ness", and thus does NOT sound like Pantera or Annihilator. Again, the distortion of it, it's just damn weird...it's like 'Rust in Peace' in the "out there, like nothing else" sense.
Right from the opener "Angel in Black" you'll notice something's changed, as it's definitely the heaviest thing you've ever heard Primal Fear do - before you have even heard the REST of the album, that is! In any case, this one features a frenzied, shrieky main opening riff that is just so fucking speed metal, more than you can shake a stick at. The vocal melodies are power metal of highest caliber, and standing out the most is of course the chorus:
THERE IS BLOOD, THERE IS PAIN
BUT MY AGONY IS NOT IN VAIN
'CAUSE THERE'S LIFE AFTER DEATH
AND I'M SURE COMING BACK TO ATTACK
As an angel in blaaaaaack!!!
Written in capitals, because the vocal delivery is fucking INTENSE - yes, it's the old multi-layering trick, and you probably have to enjoy Ralf's vocals a lot in order to like it, as you'll be hearing at least five of him at the same time. But if you do like him, there's a lot for you here - you'll find the effect really overwhelmingly powerful if you give it a couple of listens. A good thing is that Ralf's vocals work better than ever in this context - some people find him too screechy and over-the-top, but on this album, the music is at least screechy and over-the-top (in a good way) to actually MATCH him. Back to the songs, "Kiss of Death" follows next, and is pretty much a complete rip-off "Hell Patrol" (know the band and album beforehand, or you pretty much have no business with this band whatsoever!) - see that song as for general style, and especially drum beat - but on its own it features a very nice original main riff. It's harmonized, and not just for the sake of it like so many bands do (and an entire GENRE of metal does, by the way), but to create a very powerful melodic effect.
Solid blazers "Back From Hell" and "Fire on the Horizon" follow suit and are just a wee bit weaker - but in the title track we get some serious, highest quality power/speed metal very similar to absolute fastest Gamma Ray - see the opening melody, it's similar to "Beyond the Black Hole". Awesomely solid stuff so far, and more excellent vocal work is shown with that glorious "Into the light we are guided by our destiny!!!" line - power metal at its finest; traditional as fuck, but when wasn't Primal Fear like that...in any case, the song turns otherworldly after the second chorus. AWESOME fast riff here, and the sound of metal eagles swooshing by just adds to the happy headbanging fun of it. And the solo - oh my dearest, the SOLO. The trade-offs between Leibing and Wolter will have you stunned by the first time you hear it, and airguitaring/rockingthefuckout like crazy any other time you hear it. In particular check out the progression between that lightning-fast third solo (the second trade-off) and the more melodic and technical bit when they switch axeman again...composition at its most delicate; "beautiful" is the best way to describe it, still being every little bit as insane as possibly imaginable. And then that Helloween-esque twin harmony to top it off - utter perfection.
Oh yeah, and did I even mention there's variety on here? No, just like with any other PF album, not everything is all-out machine gun speed metal assault - and I don't just mean ballads, but also punchy mid-paced groove stuff and even thrash influenced shit (more on that later)! "Eye of an Eagle" - here's where they really let that guitar tone, or just pure distortion really shine. It's sorta simplistic, riff-wise (and more on the "rock" side of things than that of "metal"), but the sound and execution of it makes it quite the fun trip - this is by the way the obligatory "bass line song" that PF puts on every album - first only bass in the verse, followed by the guitars sliiiiiiding in and starting to groove things up. With this distortion it sounds better than ever. Check out the grooving part topped off with a well-placed harmonic right after "Something flew out from the clouds..." in the first verse...hell yes. "Red Rain" definitely takes it for the most *interesting* track on here - it's double bass, 1-2 beats all the way, but it's much more "laid-back" than you'd expect, and focuses on some very cool, melodic lead melodies, making it sound quite original by PF standards. Well, Iron Savior does jump to mind a bit, but in any case this song also features by far the best vocal delivery on here: "Do you feel I'm far away, please don't wait, well it's too late/YOU DON'T SEE ME!!/I believe you should awake!!"
There are one to three ballads on here, depending on what you define as one. "Bleed for Me" is the obvious one, and is unfortunately a bit boring and definitely among the weaker tracks on here. Typical German balladry = cheeseball. "Now or Never" is far cooler, and is like a mix between "Under Your Spell" and "When the Night Comes" on the previous album - the emotion of the former and the atmosphere and groove of the latter. It's basically a mid-paced groove stomper, but with emotional, dramatic vocal lines that still makes it somewhat of a ballad. "Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove" is semi-acoustic in the verse, but is at the same time very upbeat, almost too much to be passed off as a ballad, maybe. The chorus features some inventive vocal overlapping - Ralf holding a high note and doing some cool backing vox at the same time...hard to explain, better hear it for yourself. However, this is maybe the only track on here that hasn't "aged" particularly well with me - as I said, there is a lot going on at the same time in the chorus, including even some twin lead harmonies in the background and more stuff, which gets kinda tiresome after hearing it a few times...oh well. One of the most original PF songs ever written in any case, so I guess kudos to them for breaking away from the standard a bit...
Oh fuck, I almost forgot "Fight the Fire" - quite possibly my favorite track on here, and anyhow the heaviest AND catchiest track on the album. It's aggressive as fuck and the riffs are just downright thrashy, and I mean THRAAAAAAAASH!!!! in every imaginable sense of the word. The whole riff build-up in the beginning is nothing short of amazing - we start off with a Master of Puppets/Behind the Crooked Cross styled riff with thrashy drums on top, then add a fast chugging section for a couple of seconds, dropping the drums, before exploding into something über-aggressive (the verse riff) that wouldn't look out of place on Vio-lence's classic 'Eternal Nightmare'!! (speaking of which, that "fast chugging" section I mentioned is almost "Subterfuge"...but it's a commonly used riff) The vocals may be mixed a bit too loud for it, but do try to catch the riff work in the chorus too - Primal Fear has always had a sense for throwing in subtleties in their songs to add staying power, and this right here is a great example of it. There are tons of little details in the guitar work everywhere on this album, but I wouldn't want to spoil everything before you hear it. This album is an EXPERIENCE.
Highly, highly recommended to all you Painkiller junkies, or just fans of German power metal - I guess if you fit into to one of those, you probably fit into the other one too, though. It's very accessible, but still probably the second least accessible of their catalogue, after the semi-progressive 'Black Sun' (a very nice progressive step following this album) - it's so goddamn intense that the listener may not catch everything on the first spin. Such was the case with me, so initially I was maybe slightly disappointed with it following the two first releases - but it all hammered through with only a few repeated listens. And everyone knows that "growing" albums are the ones that can stand the largest amount of spins before they start to collect dust - and all this baby has collected at this point are all the scratches on the jewel case, caused by me sliding it out of my CD rack so damn often! It has NEVER left frequent rotation since I got it more than two years ago as of this writing, and even today, every time I spin it I find new things about it that I love, or simply reminders of why I began to love it so damn much in the first place. If I can just forget that horrendous last track ever existed, that is (the rest of the album just deserves better than being mentioned along with it, so no song review for it) - ok, so it's not 100% consistent. But that's as far as complaints go, really.
What was that? Darker than WHAT, you said?! :p
In Nuclear Fire, Primal Fear have released their strongest album to date. This one takes a much heavier approach, with more aggressiveness in the lyrics, riffwork and overall feeling of the songs. The melodic guitarwork and vocal lines are nonetheless just as evident on this one as on the two previous, and they have improved greatly, being catchier and more memorable than ever before.
Ralf delivers a killer vocal performance, and gives us more high-pitched screams than on any other of their albums, and the choruses are more memorable than on any other pf albums.
The influence Painkiller had on the band is getting more and more evident on this album, since it’s mainly darker and heavier than the average Primal Fear, the high-pitched vocals and not to mention that the main riff of Kiss of Death is a complete ripoff from the Hell Patrol intro.
So, while this could definitely be their least original album, it works better than any of the previous, and easily ranks as my favourite album of the band.
Alas, the album is slightly inconsistent. There are no really bad songs, but there are a few songs that only qualify as decent at best. Kiss of Death, for instance – It’s actually a great song, but the best part of it is a ripoff. Other just-decent songs are Eye of an Eagle (Running in the Dust ideas reused again- Midpaced verses over groovy basslines. Great idea guys, but stop putting the same song on each album!), Bleed For Me (probably their weakest ballad to date) and Red Rain (very nice vocal lines, but otherwise nothing remarkable).
Moving on, it’s time to list the better songs on the album. Opener Angel in Black just rips from start to finish- An insane vocal performance wails over a pounding double bass and aggressive riffwork. Also to be found is a killer singalong chorus, a ripping solo and excellent melodic leads. One of the best songs in the Primal Fear catalogue.
Back From Hell is their most aggressive song to date. Speed fucking metal riffwork underneath the classic use of double bass and an all-out falsetto attack from vocalist Ralf Scheepers, except for the chorus which has quite decent clean vocals.
Now or Never, half-ballad and half-classic Primal Fear song. Very melodic and emotional, but very catchy nonetheless.
Fight The Fire – Heavy as fuck riffwork, especially during the insane intro. Very upbeat and catchy song, with a nice midpaced chorus.
Nuclear Fire – Speed metal! Fast, catchy and very upbeat, with a chorus that screams power metal.
And the closing track Living For Metal – Best Primal Fear song ever, period.
The beginning will knock you off your feet- a midpaced, pounding double bass hammers underneath an insane falsetto-scream by Ralf Scheepers.
The verses are midpaced, but contains energy never matched by the band. The vocal melodies just work perfect, and while there isn’t really much riffwork here, the guitars do their job and add a lot to the song. The chorus is absolutely mindblowing; a true metalhead must love it.
The solo is short but excellent, and the bridge is out of this world.
Holy shit, that song owns.
So all in all, while this has some slightly weaker tracks, most of the stuff here kicks ass, and altogether, in my book this qualifies as some killer metal.
It's Ralf's vocals. He has to be the most annoying singer in the history of existence. He tries to sound like a mix between Rob Halford and Harry Conklin, and comes off as neither. He's just very forced, especially that he sings at just about the same syllable pace, despite the differing speeds of the songs... this especially is notable during the choruses. For example, "Fight the Fire" starts off with some awesome riffs, and then degenerates into an almost hardcore-ish "You have! To fight! The fire!". He doesn't nearly have the melody of Rob Halford, and his range seems to be severely limited to two intervals: the normal, and the falsetto.
The actual music... well, somewhere in here there is a decent but unspectacular speed metal album. The riff work is generally okay, but very samey, and following far too many speed metal cliches. This wouldn't be bad if the rest of the album was decent too, but with everything else so mediocre, I have to fall back on these riffs and they just don't hold up.
The leads try SO HARD to be Painkiller, but don't quite make sense. Now, lay over the album a very monotone, very loud-in-the-mix vocal track, and you have this abject loser of an album. It's hard to fuck up speed metal, but these guys managed to do it. Oddly enough, only during the ballad does he demonstrate the quality of his voice - it's really not bad at all. Too bad the ballad is boring as Hell.
As for the track "Iron Fist in a Metal Glove", which everyone seems to rave as being totally different from Primal Fear, and sounding even like Metal Church... hah, the Metal Church reference is totally off. It sounds more like an old Gamma Ray track than anything else. Yes, from one of the old crappy Gamma Ray albums. With none other than Ralf on vocals. The backup vocals in the chorus make the song somewhat memorable, now would someone PLEASE tell Ralfey that he doesn't HAVE TO shriek and hit high notes, just because he can.
So what we have here, all in all, is a very mediocre speed metal album with some of the most awful vocals ever. Entirely avoidable.