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Often a metal institution will be born out of sheer happenstance, and nothing could be more so than a very successful venture being conceived in the wake of a perceived failure. The Primal Fear story is ultimately the story of Ralf Scheepers, who found himself on his own after jumping ship from Gamma Ray in order to replace Rob Halford at the helm of Judas Priest. It was wildly believed that he had the job in the bag by all in congress in his former band, including that of Kai Hansen, and no one could have predicted that an unknown from the States with only one original recording project under his belt (Tim "Ripper" Owens) would be able to come out of nowhere and snatch it away from a seasoned veteran of this craft that had been at it since the mid 1980s. Not one to be brought down by defeat, Scheepers immediately joined forces with Mat Sinner and several members of his self-named project to once again rain speed and hellfire upon the masses.
Comparisons between Primal Fear's debut and "Jugulator" are inevitable given the circumstances that led up to both albums, and ultimately the verdict on which album is the better one lay on personal preference. One could argue effectively that "Primal Fear" has a slight edge on the grounds of execution, but the chief element separating it from Priest's first effort with Ripper is a rugged conservatism toward established speed metal practices, one that ignores the presence of modernity after the mod of Pantera and Machine Head. The flavor of the music put forth by Sinner and company is much more line with the grand early 80s tradition of Accept meshed with a slightly helping of melodic detailing brought in from the Helloween/Gamma Ray school, and a greater reliance on scream harmonics and fills along the line of Vivian Campbell and Zakk Wylde. Likewise, the signature fanfare chorus that generally greets the arenas of the 80s endures in the Primal Fear mode, while Ripper era Priest seemed to define itself by all but systematically avoiding anything that could be sung along with.
The only thing about this album that really screams Judas Priest worship is Scheeper's vocal approach, which is pretty strongly informed by the 80s sound heard on "Defenders Of The Faith", though a slight hint of Michael Kiske can be found from time to time, no doubt in reaction to Ralf's stint with Gamma Ray and the covers of Helloween songs that naturally came with it. But when hearing the easy to follow, sing along speeders that culminate in "Silver And Gold" and "Nine Lives", the flavor is a bit more sugary and polished than the "Painkiller" sound that many seem keen on comparing this too. If nothing else, these songs would lend themselves to the middle ground between speeding aggression and pomp-drenched 80s fanfare that defined said album's predecessor "Ram It Down". Likewise, when things slow down to a grinding crunch in "Dollars" and "Battalions Of Hate", the overt "Balls To The Wall" influences come screaming through like an eagle out of hell, complete with a slightly more gravely vocal character out of Scheepers, though not quite the Brian Johnson sound that Udo brought to the original.
Interestingly enough, just about every possible twist that would find their way into the next 4 Primal Fear albums has a prototype on this debut, though the format is a little rough and in need of some honing. The typical deviation into violent riff work meshed with an almost obnoxiously thunderous drum sound that would pop up a bit more frequently come "Devil's Ground" has an early foundation in "Formula One", though in the form of a song loaded with lyrical references to Europe's slightly more interesting version of car racing (in comparison to NASCAR). Likewise, a slow grooving ballad with a fairly epic keyboard sound that would still be called upon from time to time all the way up to "New Religion" can be seen in "Tears Of Rage", though on this occasion things dwell a bit too long on an extended keyboard intro before finally kicking into a down tempo pound. But once it gets going, one can't help but raise the lighter in praise of the almighty power ballad, especially during the chorus section.
While this represents a rough draft of what would later prove to be a consistent purveyor of an older approach to throwing the neck out of alignment, it manages to deliver on something that "Jugulator" ultimately fell a little short on, namely quality. It's generally a good idea to stick to what one knows, and while Rob Halford managed to break some interesting new ground on Fight's debut, the same can't really be said for Priest's run with Ripper. In Primal Fear is a band that knows its specialty and manages to turn the familiar into something fresh for a younger generation of adherents. Those who like German brand speed metal with a bit more emphasis on melody and flash, this is a decent addition to the flock.
If you want to enjoy listening to a heavy metal album, you must first know what exactly you want to get from it. Others want to hear nice melodies and complex riffs and solos, while some just want to have fun and let out their rage and energy. If you belong to the second category Primal Fear is your medicine. Formed by ex-Gamma Ray vocalist Ralph Scheepers and veteran bassist Matt Sinner, the band released their debut album that beard the name of the band in 1998.
It is commonly known that Scheepers lives and breathes for Judas Priest. His dream was to sing for them one day but unfortunately for him he was born German and not British. So he decided that the sound of his band would be close to the one of Priest. Indeed, Primal Fear, from the cover to the music, is a perfect combination of Defenders of the Faith and Painkiller. They don’t claim a prize for their authenticity; instead they declare their love for true metal played from the heart.
The songs are based upon dynamic, simple riffs, heavy melodies and Scheepers’ perfect vocals. The solid rhythm section makes the compositions sound so god-damn heavy all the way giving the sense that they could have been in Priest’s new album if Tipton and Downing hadn’t heard TOO much of Machine Head. But why do I talk so much of Judas Priest? Because it is obvious that they have influenced so much Primal Fear that you can almost sense them in the songs. I have no problem with that to be honest. Neither will you after you’ve blown away by the songs.
As soon as the small intro ends and the first notes of Chainbreaker begin, a heavy metal feeling flows through the speakers and your heart starts to beat faster. The following tracks, Silver & gold and Promised Land are so fucking heavy with their razor-sharp guitars and thunderous drums that the only thing you wanna do is bang your head and scream out loud as you get carried away in a metal ecstasy.
The tension continues with Formula One, another speedy song before Dollars, calms things down a bit. It’s a more mid-tempo song but still in the heavy atmosphere and climate of the album. Nine Lives which comes next is a bit mediocre, yet does not lack in strength. I pretty much like its’ chorus and solo.
Tears of Rage is a metallized ballad, their answer to Priest’s Touch of Evil. The wonderful keyboard beginning, gives place to heavy guitars and inspired breaks that soon explode into a metal storm making this song a classic already. Scheepers sings with a tremendous passion and feeling proving that he could have been an excellent choice to fill the place for Halford’s replacement. Tim Owens is okay but Ralph is miles better than him.
They also try to pay aspect to legends Deep Purple with a cover on the classic Speed King. I must say that they have done quite well. They remain true to the Purple spirit but have turned the song into so much more metal than the authentic. One of the best covers I have heard.
There are more metal diamonds hidden in here and the band reveals them through metal blasters like Battalions of Hate and Running in the Dust. Heavy as fuck guitars, killing drums and angry vocals penetrate your mind and kick your sorry little ass if you are still sitting down! The album ends at full speed with Thunderdome, one more great track that hits you viciously with its’ fast pace and metal shock waves created by the charging guitar and drums. A killer for sure this one is!
If you claim to be metal fans then Primal Fear will put you to the test. If you listen the whole album unharmed and with your head still stuck to your neck, you will have survived the metal storm Scheepers and his mates prepared for you.
[new review, first one written on March 14th, 2004]
Spinning the ol' Primal Fear discs intensively for the first time in over a year certainly seems to affected my views on them a bit. First 'Black Sun' just totally grew on me all of a sudden, so I wrote a new review of it, and since it looked inconsistent with my old review of the following 'Devil's Ground' (as it reflected some of my past negative views on 'Black Sun'), I then went ahead and wrote a new review for that one too...even though my opinion on the album itself had not changed much. Well, as my writing IMHO has greatly improved since I started out, I thought I might as well re-review the rest of their catalogue too, doing one of my all-time favorite bands justice. After all, those PF reviews were the first ones I ever wrote, meaning they were pretty much bound to suck...however; this album mainly needs re-reviewing for another reason.
I do not consider this album the band's best work anymore. My reason for putting this one on top was mostly that incredible one-two punch on here, rarely matched ANYWHERE else in metal - that is "Battalions of Hate"/"Running in the Dust". That certainly counts for something, but then you gotta take the rest of the album into account also - that's where this album just comes up a bit short, which I've come to realise after weeks of careful studying. It wasn't until 2001's 'Nuclear Fire' that the band reached its full potential, and what we have here is, while some damn solid work for a debut, the band struggling a bit with consistency, part due to a lack of direction in places. Maybe I should use the word "debut" a bit loosely, because this band contains mostly of seasoned veterans, but songwriting duties are split, so this is still an actual BAND effort we're talking about here.
The band does have a lot of its songwriting formula figured out already on here: the typical German sound forged by such bands as Accept, later evolved into Helloween and Running Wild, but also with a lot of 80's-and-onward Judas Priest thrown in, very much so vocally (hey, I'm glad he didn't get the gig in Priest, because this is far better than anything they could come up with afterwards!). Of course, since bassist Mat Sinner is part of the group, the influence from his band is also very noticeable - lots of classic groove-stomping on here. In fact, this whole album can almost be described as a heavier 'Judgement Day', with more varied songwriting and different vocals... Then vocalist Ralf Scheepers has probably brought something with him from his days in Gamma Ray, featuring of course Kai Hansen, guest starring on this album on the second guitar. Meaning there's a good deal of speed for everyone to be had alongside the groove, but even more will be added in with the next couple of albums. Yes, this is power/speed metal of the more riff-driven kind - probably even more than the two main bands Kai Hansen has starred in. The musicianship is solid, but will along with the songwriting improve in the future, after a couple of line-up changes.
But yeah, there are numerous PF staples on here that we all know (?) and love (??). Like of course "Chainbreaker" - when people accuse PF for copying Priest (as if no one else is doing it), this is what they are referring to. Big time 'Painkiller'-era worship here, but the guitar tone is more in the modern, meaty and polished vein of 'Jugulator', minus the downtuning. Scott Travis-like double-bass drumming is of course featured here, and the main riff is just so fucken SPEED METAL one can possibly get whether you choose to recognize it as a genre of its own or not. And it's CATCHY AS FUCK too - the song structure is just as simple as anything put out by 80's Priest, and the production too is of the more accessible variety. No possible better way to start off a German power metal album - it's also good for newcomers, as a representative of the band's sound. It's really easy to check: you don't like this, then this band is just not for you, simple as that.
"Dollars" - fucking awesome slow-burn, mid-tempo stomp. There's always one of these on each PF album, but they've yet to top this one - it is quite similar to the song "Balls to the Wall" in places, the ORIGINAL mid-tempo groove stomper that single-handedly spawned all these songs that practically every German heavy metal band of the "true metal" variety tends to put on at least one of their albums (see Paragon, the third track on most of their albums). "I saw a Cadillac driving to the wishing well..." - the lyrics make little sense, but the vocal performance here is quite impressive. Nice little guitar fill just after that line to keep the up the flow too...
And the aforementioned one-two punch at track 10 & 11 - again; I just cannot give these two enough praise, because I must've spun them both about 50 time each by now, I shit you not. They're just that completely goddamn catchy and memorable and best of all, I can still spin them AND have tons of fun even after two years. "That German stuff" at it's finest - no, not the most original thing ever, and in fact the latter song directly borrows the verse of Accept's "Up to the Limit", but everything is oh-so-well done for what it is (basically the whole concept of this band from day one). Extremely hard-hitting, catchy riffs and exceptionally solid rhythm guitar work on both, although the latter is a little more groove based and bass driven (subsequent albums also feature songs that are just like this). In particular the guitar fills in the verses highlights "Battalions", while the maximum-groove middle section stands out the most in "Running", just after the solo ("I miss my country...my friends, my family..."); some fabulously headmoving shit right there after a few seconds. But hey, the chorus alone is enough to make it truly memorable: "'Cause they were Running in the DUST!!!! RUNNING!!" Heavy fucken metal! \m/
So what of the rest of the album? Well, as I said; it's underdeveloped at times. "Silver & Gold" and "Nine Lives" both are, while not quite as riff-heavy as "Chainbreaker", solid and speedy and feature total sing-along power metal choruses, but the production is unfortunately a little bit off on both of them. I think the problem may be that they lack the excellent guitar tone of later releases; it's not quite as heavy and distinct on here. Also, the latter song has a main riff that would make Zakk Wylde think "holy fuck, that's a whole fucking fuckload of pinch harmonic use there!" Seriously, the whole RIFF is like a long series of said pinch harmonics, and that's simply overdoing it. This is a recurring problem throughout the whole album, and while later albums will also utilize them, they are generally more tastefully used there.
Two songs are complete disasters and ENTIRELY off the mark. "Formula One" sounds almost like the band Machine Head, which is really damn bad to begin with, but the chorus is almost laughable in its worthlessness - pretty much the worst power metal could ever sound. And that stupid keyboard interlude in the middle - it's bad enough as it is, but what in the fuck is it even DOING there in the first place?! Identity crisis here, apart from songwriting being absolutely bottom of the barrel. More lack of direction comes through in "Tears of Rage", which is awful, German-styled balladry at its cheesiest - and since it has enough keyboards to give Sonata Arctica a run for their money, it has no place on an album like this. I think they're trying to recreate the moody atmosphere of Sinner's "Streets of Sin" (found on 1997's 'Judgement Day'), as Ralf is really pushing himself to sound like the raspy-throated Mat Sinner himself, but everything just comes off as really damn forced, when all is said and done.
Apart from the fast-paced, barrel-of-fun cover of Purple's "Speedking", the rest is basically filler. "Thunderdome" very much so, and "Promised Land" is kinda boring power metal, featuring a stupid and annoying chorus. I think I might have enjoyed the verse a little more if it didn't completely rip off the classic intro of Priest's "The Sentinel". Yes, I believe I went a little too easy on this album's weak parts the first time around, but they are all typical "birth defects"; things many other bands struggle with on their debut album, before really breaking through with usually their second or third release. However, this is still extremely impressive and well above average for a debut, but at the same time surely a sign for even greater things to come. Worth it for the super-highlights on here alone. A bit unoriginal, yes, and maybe a little cheese here and there as well, but highly enjoyable when all is accounted for.
Yes, Primal Fear is just about the most unoriginal band ever. But if you know me, you’ll know that originality isn’t one of the most important things in music to me. I don’t give a shit about it, really- if it’s good, it’s good. And this is really, really good.
On their first album, this five-man group of German headbangers gives us a lethal dose of metal, combining the traditional, power and speed genres into one album that is not so much creative and mind bending as it is fun as hell and totally rocking.
They blast out riffs by the thousands, which forward the songs throughout. It’s a very riff-based brand of mainly power metal, and fortunately these guys know just how to write riffs; each one is heavier and catchier than the last. And let’s not forget about their awesome solos. Again, it may be very standard stuff and nothing surprising at all, but Tipton/Downing worshipping leads and solos they constantly bless us with are very often nothing short of amazing.
The main focus however is put on the vocals of Ralf Scheepers, who does try quite hard to be Rob Halford. And while no one can match The Metal God, this dude does a VERY good job. He belts out some mindblowing screams, and his midrange is extremely powerful as well, though more melodic and a bit higher than that of Halford’s. Ralf is extremely over the top, and some might find him annoying, but to me he often makes the songs what they are. I doubt any other vocalist could give the same dose of simultaneous passion and punch into the choruses of such songs as Promised Land and Silver And Gold. And there’s another awesome thing about this band, the choruses. Especially on this CD, they’re excellent. Very power-ish stuff, a blast to sing along to, and extremely memorable.
Most of the songs are pretty fast-paced, and there are several speed metal numbers on here. Chainbreaker being the best of them, and the definite highlight of the album. Other standouts are Formula One (though it’s cheesy as hell, especially the keyboard-driven middle section. It’s pretty damn funny, but still rather well-done). And also Nine Lives, the happiest song on here and one of the catchiest, too. The chorus is ecstasy-inducing.
Then we have a number of midtempo bangers as well. Dollars being the highlight, with it’s impossibly groovy riffwork and well done vocal work. Running In The Dust is also good, featuring the formula of bass-driven verses they’d do on at least one song in each album.
In conclusion… if you want something thought-provoking and never before heard, go wank off to endless Dream Theater keyboard solos with no aim or direction. If you want quick and to-the-point heavy/power/speed metal with catchier songwriting in one song than Opeth will ever have in their entire career, then you should definitely give this a try. Very cheesy, over the top and unoriginal, but most fucking enjoyable.
No, this does not sound like Painkiller. Maybe, in its best moments, it sounds a little bit like that album, with those best moments being "Chainbreaker" for the most part. But okay, one song does not make an album - practically EVERY modern speed metal album manages to have one song that sounds like Painkiller.
The rest of the album, it's just a little bit off the mark. It's hard to say exactly what's wrong with it, but where the songs on the average speed metal album tend to flow and make sense, these songs are just a bit grating, and seem to be running counter to themselves half the time. It seems they picked up the Everything-that's-wrong-with-Accept vibe - songs that just don't make fucking sense. The choruses are sometimes a bit boring, a bit repetitive, or just too damn overt and loud - Ralf Scheepers tries so damn hard to be Rob Halford, it's probably because he didn't get the Priest gig. Let's face it, Tim Owens is way better.
Summing up, this album tries so fucking hard to be Painkiller that it just ends up tripping over itself. It's hard to fuck up speed metal - just go with the first melody you can think of, speed it up three times, and usually you get a winner. But these guys apparently polished and polished so much that the essence of Judas Priest, Helloween, Paradox, etc etc just kinda fell away, and they got boring shit when all was said and done. No real standout songs other than Chainbreaker. They managed to make mediocre speed metal, I guess that is an accomplishment. Go Ralf.