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I was a bit taken aback at the negative response following Smolski's controversial departure back in 2015. Despite many of the albums featuring him being extremely well received, a large contingent of fans were quick to throw Victor under the bus, hoping for a reunion with Manni Schmidt, which we did thankfully get under the Refuge name. The bottom line is that Peavy was stretching his creative prowess too thinly, with the Lingua Mortis project feeling like a slightly more orchestral Speak of the Dead; but why even bother? This resulted in the lackluster and misguided Strings to a Web, a failed attempt to medicate the wounds opened by the lukewarm reaction to the more streamlined riffing affair Carved in Stone.
And disappointing of all is the fact that 21 is a damn good reversal of fortune, again eschewing the more experimental and orchestral forebear for a heavier, more down and dirty heavy metal outing lacking in the symphonic obfuscation that Rage so often experiment with, ultimately similar to Carved in Stone in many ways. The dissolution of the Smolski-led lineup means that this is the last gasp of what had become the longest-running incarnation of the band, one dotted with overlong showcases of virtuous masturbation with not enough sledgehammer riffage and grit, which is about the best we can expect from Rage nowadays. The Black in Mind days aren't coming back, but 21 really nails what Carved in Stone only marginally succeeded at. The opening salvo of tracks exhibits a balance that gives Smolski just enough room to radiate a few marvelous solos, but the emphasis is firmly rooted in monstrous heavy/groove riffs, a style that Smolski rarely lets loose with, but not for lack of capacity. Songs like "Feel My Pain" and "Serial Killer" are richter scale-invoking grumblers with Peavy in fine form as always.
Variety is lacking compared to much of what came before it, but the songs just feel more fleshed out and actually make good use of the typical Rage protraction. The album clocks in at just under an hour, with tunes averaging at a sprightly five or so minutes. Production values are beefed up over the flat Strings to a Web, with rich pinch harmonics and a deeper sonic palate that mitigates the lack of orchestral embellishments. Choruses are not the best Rage has ever penned, but there are a couple of earworms in there. Even better, nothing sucks or gets annoying, like many of the songs on Unity or even Soundchaser. Peavy's higher register is capable, but he can write some extremely catchy (in an irritating way) hooks. Thankfully this is kept to a minimum on 21.
It lacks the explosive eccentricity of Speak of the Dead, but the album serves as a competent foil to that one's symphonic lustre. It isn't quite as raw as Carved in Stone, but the high production makes up for this and gives the album a more polished fisticuff-leaden flow. From the caustic stomp of "Psycho Terror" to the sticky melodies of "Feel My Pain" and the pseudo-ballad closer "Eternally," 21 is everything one would hope for in a modern Rage album, and a fine end cap to the Smolski era of the band. Can the fresh blood top this one on The Devil Strikes Again? Honestly, I doubt it.
When you think about which bands were the pioneers of European power metal, there should be one band among others that should always be mentioned. Formed in 1986, Germany’s Rage was a catalyst in creating and evolving European power metal back in the early days of the genre, and after 26 years Rage are still going strong and showing no signs of slowing down.
Only a handful of metal bands survive long enough to release over 20 studio albums and Rage’s latest effort is their 21st full length CD, conveniently titled ‘21’. The album title is also a synonym, a double meaning. On ‘21’, the number is used to represent the importance in terms of gambling, and in particular, Blackjack. For those who understand the basics of the game, 21 is the golden number you need to achieve blackjack and ultimately win. The band portrays the gambling aspect of 21 with the opening spoken word and instrumental intro and then into the first track on ‘21’, “Twenty One”.
Like the majority of Rage CDs in the last 10 or so years, you know that you don’t exactly get a straight up European power metal album, not while guitarist/keyboardist Victor Smolski has anything to do with it. Smolski’s signature guitar sound is quite unique and sometimes unusual, but for the majority Victor lays out zipping riffs, chords, wails and solos. Smolski also co-produces/mixes/masters the album alongside Charlie Bauerfeind (who has co-produced all Rage’s albums from 2002’s ‘Unity’ and previously worked with Saxon, Axel Rudi Pell, Primal Fear, Helloween, Hammerfall, Gamma Ray, Freedom Call and Blind Guardian).
Rage are not afraid of mixing things up with their sound, we witnessed that with 2006’s ‘Speak of the Dead’, where the album included orchestral elements throughout, and another example with 2010’s ‘Strings to a Web’, with Smolski and co once again doing different little things here and there that normally would not appear on a typical straight-laced European power metal album. Vocalist “Peavy” Wagner also has a big influence on album, with his unmistakable raspy and marble gargling voice, that can also become quite calm, sedative and peaceful at times too. The two big identities together make for always explosive, diverse and interesting discs that contain plenty of standout songs to choose from. Not always every metalhead’s cup of tea, even ones who enjoy European power metal, Rage albums will always surprise and intrigue the fan/listener; and the new album ‘21’ continues that trend.
One thing that has stood out with Rage albums, unfortunately, is the level of inconsistency. Even though 2003’s ‘Soundchaser’ is arguably Rage’s best album for the last 10 years, there were still a few songs on that album that could be considered fillers. The same applies here again on the new CD, with a few tracks not really taking off compared to the top-flighted songs. The album doesn’t get off to a good start, with both the intro and the opening track “Twenty One” failing to live up to normal Rage standards. The song is quite sporadic, going all over the place, while the lyrics are fairly substandard I must admit. Fortunately the guitar solo by Smolski is very good.
“Forever Dead” gets the show started, with a furious and speedy track that is classic Rage through and through. Pounding technical drumming, sensational guitar-work by Smolski and aggressive howling by Wagner will wanna make you play this one over and over, banging your head til it falls off. “Feel My Pain” takes a while to get going, but once into the first verse and that crushing, catchy sing-a-long chorus, it becomes a very good track. Smolski’s guitar-work on this track is against the norm, but quite unique and seems to work well, alongside the rhythm section. “Serial Killer” features Wagner singing (during the verses) in an almost black metal snarling style, but brings it down in the bridge/chorus while the music also changes from aggressive to melodic. Overall, it’s not one of the best tracks on the disc, but still good.
The best track on the album (IMO) is “Psycho Terror”, which is just brilliant from beginning to end. Containing mesmerising riffs from Smolski that have a slight groove metal feel to them, you’ll be bouncing all around the joint with air guitar in hand. Overall, the track is just so goddamn catchy and memorable; again classic Rage at their best. “Destiny” is next and is yet another smashing track, balls to the wall speed and savageness, but with a wicked catchy sing-a-long melodic chorus. The drumming from Andre Hilgers (Silent Force/Sinner/ex-Axxis) is nothing short of pulverising to this point, a real stand out performance that is just typical of him. The remainder of the album takes a slight dip in quality after “Destiny” (four tracks to go), however there are two solid and enjoyable songs to look forward to, that being “Concrete Wall” and “Death Romantic”.
In the end, ‘21’ is another quality album from the European power metal pioneers that will certainly thrill and excite their fans and fans of the genre. ‘21’ is basically what you’d expect from the modern formation and evolution of Rage and while the release is not their best, it is far from their worst. Those who have enjoyed the Victor Smolski era of Rage (from 1999 onwards), and have enjoyed all the albums released since then should also be satisfied with ‘21’.
Originally written for www.themetalforge.com (2012)
By my count, 21 is only Rage’s twentieth studio album (unless perhaps they are counting Lingua Mortis, which I could perhaps understand), but you won’t hear me complaining too loudly about it. Press about the album ahead of time hailed it as being the band’s heaviest and most aggressive piece of work to date. Really, we’ve never had a lack of those things from what might be Germany’s most consistent metal band. Regardless of the approach, I expected this to be another quality entry into the group’s catalog.
I was, however, a bit disappointed straight off the bat with the title track. “Twenty One” isn’t a bad song, and the gambling metaphor isn’t too overdone, but I consider it to be easily amongst the weakest title tracks that the band has churned out. Considering the results on Soundchaser, Black In Mind, Carved In Stone, and most others, I felt that this gives 21 something of a weak leadoff. Did they really just choose a gambling theme because Peavy perceives this as their 21st album? This seems lame to me, and as always, so does naming your album after its chronological number. But hey, no one’s gotten this high before with their numbering. If I see a 22 in a couple years though, heads will roll.
Anyways, after the so-so eponymous opener, momentum is built quickly. “Forever Dead” is a smoker with a very good chorus, and “Feel My Pain” keeps things going before the mold begins to break with “Serial Killer”. This track shocked me considerably, as Peavy cut loose with the first harsh vocals that I’ve heard him spit out. While I find the harsh vocals quite good and instrumental work stellar as usual, the lyricism takes a downhill slide into the mediocrity that Rage resorts to from time to time. And there it stays for a while, as “Psycho Terror” remains a bit dull lyrically, as well as a couple of the songs later in the album.
“Destiny”, on the other hand, rips the album up to a high point. With some magnificent riffing, jolting tempo changes, and a solo section that drives me nearly to my knees, this is probably my favorite track on the album, thanks in no small part once again to esteemed archmage of the guitar, Mr. Smolski. In fact, I think that Victor’s performance has improved yet again. How, I don’t know, but like a fine wine (though I think Smolski is more like a single malt scotch), this guy just keeps getting better and better.
21 is ultimately a run-of-the-mill album for Rage, that being the gigantic steel-studded monstrosity of a mill that the trio runs. It has its high points, (though not too many of them) and it has some redundancy and a touch of banality here and there as well (ugh, “Concrete Wall”). However, the high standard of cohesion that has always been a strong point for Rage (and of course Smolski’s slamming riff wizardry) help them keep their heads well above water. It’s billed as “more aggressive”, but really isn’t other than one or two songs. Rage fans are gonna dig this as always, go pick it up.
Original review written for Black Wind Metal
Finally, a Rage album that doesn’t suck. After the underwhelming Carved in Stone and the annoying Strings to a Web, I didn’t really expect anything from this except one good song and a bunch of poppy crap. But the venerable German bastards in Rage, still boasting the indestructible duo of Peavy and Smolski, apparently had another good album in them with 21.
This is just easily their best since Soundchaser. Finally we have longer, heavier songs again and less of the experimentation the band has been indulging in as of late. Let’s face it…what this band is good at is the pugilistic, stripped down, heavy-fucking-metal songwriting with powerful choruses and slamming riffs. It’s a testament to how good this is when I can say there are several songs on here that would fit right in on Unity.
This album has a clear, ass-stomping guitar tone and some of Peavy’s best vocal lines in years. On the super-catchy title track or their best song in years, “Forever Dead,” the band is simply on fire with huge hooks and huger riffs. “Serial Killer” is a dark and mean song with an out-and-out harsh screech from Peavy during the verse sections – diabolical! “Psycho Terror” has some of the best riffs on the album, mightily headbangable and forceful, and “Concrete Wall” is a balls-out speed metal number like they used to do in the 80s. “Destiny” shows off their power metal side with a speedy riff and a soaring vocal hook for the chorus. A great song.
There are a few filler cuts, but then, even their old albums had fillers, so it’s not really a big deal. The lyrics are pretty awful at times, but hey, what do you want? These guys were never really lyrical poets anyway.
Now, of course this isn’t a genre-transcending work, but it reinforces what’s good about Rage and about power metal in general. If you’re tired of all the genre mixing and moving away from metal that a lot of power metal bands are doing, Rage is here to allay your fears and deliver a mighty, spiked-boot foot to your ass in the form of 21. I really hope we get another album or two this strong from this veteran band. Definitely one of the most fun albums I’ve heard this year.
These guys really are the Motorhead of power metal. Not as intense and not as good as that band, but that goes without saying. Where they do fit in with them is that they've retained and set in stone a style that's very recognizably theirs that has only subtly changed from time to time, and they're consistent as all hell, too. I can't particularly recall a sufficiently bad Rage album, but then again I can't recall an apparently great or legendary one for that matter. Maybe something along the lines of A Perfect Man, but it still is pretty vague. They don't have THAT classic album or that slew of classic albums. They're just, for lack of a better term, solid. Sometimes middling. Sometimes inspiring. Always a fixture. Anyway.
This album is based on gambling. On the face of it. And its Rage's 21st album. Or so I think, I've really lost count. But that seems to be a fairly straightforward concept. Not that it makes any difference to the lyrics, the band could very well have been singing in a different language for everything, but the chorus or in some cases the title of the song alone and it really wouldn't change things one bit. Sometimes they can be downright silly even, like say 'Psycho Terror', which is just clumsy. But I digress. Power's done worse.
So what we have here is some fairly middling stuff with some real moments of inspiration coming in every now and then. Take the intro of "Feel My Pain" and the ensuing guitar acrobatics. There's a whole ton of great choruses on here, the fist in the air stuff that would work great live. Its all pretty straightforward and memorable. Though it really is problematic and a tad bit annoying when all you can remember of a song is the line 'this will be your DEH-STIN-IYY!'. There's some stuff on here that sounds gratingly modern, but very often it's simply the lifeless production and the mechanical guitar tone that make it as such. Again, very middling stuff.
Fans of Euro-power would really dig this. It certainly doesn't do much for standing out from the rest, but maybe there's some charm to that after all. I just don't find it on this particular release. The band doesn't really sound all that inspired either, but I have to give them their due for still making it work, regardless.
Is there any more rock solid band than Rage? Maybe Motörhead. Who cares? Rage still continues on in the same pace and tempo as they have done in their last eighteen releases. Pure heavy metal with challenging riffs and strong, raw vocals. Those are just two of the things that made Rage one of my all-time favourites. They just never seem to fail.
In this release we get five songs that stand out a little more than the other songs on the album. First, we got the self-titled song Twenty One and its decent theme about gambling addiction with such fantastic musicality and a really interesting chorus. Then we have Forever Dead, which is the power package of the album. It is a song that really sticks in your head right away and stays there. I really love that chorus. We also have Destiny which has both a good beat and speed. The riffing on this one is just freaking amazing. Last but not least we have Concrete Wall, which is simply put just awesome. Did I say that there were five songs standing out? Oh yes, I forgot about the cover of Eternally, originally in Nuclear Blast All-stars: Into The Light with Oddleif from Communic singing. The reason I forgot about it is that I want to forget about it. I did not like that song one bit. Why did Rage have to do that?
Rage is solid, but as usual there is always something to complain about. This time it is that cover, otherwise 21 is just as good as the other albums Rage have released over the years. Great songs, great riffs, but still not perfect.
Best Song: Concrete Wall
Grade: 8/10 Psycho Terrors
Also available in a shorter version in Swedish on http://sharkruisher.blogg.se/?tmp=02214353