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Vitalij Kuprij. Yeah, he might be the keyboard god and all, but does he really need to take part in another project? He’s like the Hellhammer of the keys. This group, derivatively named “Ring of Fire”, is yet another creative outlet for Kuprij. Thankfully, the real leader of this band is Mark Boals, so this doesn’t just turn into another Kuprij solo album.
The star-studded line up of the aforementioned Vitalij Kuprij and Mark Boals (the latter of Yngwie Malmsteen fame), George Bellas, Virgil Donati (prog drummer extraordinaire), and Philip Bynoe raised my expectations for this album. Those expectations were not met, but seeing as this is their debut effort, I didn’t really expect them to be met anyway.
This album’s got Bellas and Kuprij in it, so you know it’s going to be a neo-classical metal shredfest. Even if you don’t know their backgrounds, the church-organ intro track lets you know what this band’s influences are. The intro is decent as far as intros go; it’s not just ambient noise in a misguided attempt at atmosphere. Mr. Kuprij shreds from the get-go and doesn’t stop for the entire album.
The intro leads nicely into the first “real” track, Circle of Time. It’s a shame this is at the beginning of the album, because Circle of Time is far and away the best song on here. It’s got a lot of prog influences that are especially apparent at the beginning, and the solos will probably cause your face to spontaneously combust. However, there is one problem with this song, and it’s the riffs. The riffs in this song, and really in the entire album, are weak and generally simplistic. In other words, standard power metal riffs, except weaker. It’s called power metal for a reason! I want to hear the goddamn guitars! The guitars are buried under the keys most of the time, so if you’re not listening carefully all you will hear is a fuckton of keyboards. It’s a shame, because the riffs are actually decent as far as power metal riffs go; they’re speedy and well played (what else from George Bellas?).
Another oddity of this release is the placement of shred sections. Of course, you expect them during the solos, but in this album you get them layered on top of the choruses and verses as well. It’s an original touch, but all it does is bury the riffs and obscure the melody line. During the vocal sections I want to focus on the vocalist, not the instrumentalists. This is especially bad at the end of “Samurai”; there’s a soft, slow part with emotional lyrics, when all of a sudden Mr. Kuprij just flies in and starts shredding in the background. Come on. We know you can shred, you don’t need to remind us every goddamn second.
Philip Bynoe and Virgil Donati don’t ever get to shine on this album. There are no drum or bass solos, so these two are relegated simply provide a backdrop for the rest of the band. It’s not that they’re less talented than their bandmates, it’s just that traditionally the bass and drums aren’t given lead rolls in metal bands. The bass in this album is rarely heard by itself, and the drums are the customary double bass speed assault. The drums are a disappointment for those looking for a good example of Donati’s drumming; any drummer could do the stuff he does on this album, and it’s a far cry from the prog mastery he shows with his other projects. He seems completely restrained on this album; even his fills are uninspired.
The best part of this album is the songwriting. Infectious melodies and catchy leads abound. The solos are somewhat forgettable because of the sameness of their shredding, but everything else will get stuck in your head. The lyrics could be a lot better, though. There are great vocal lines, but the words that were written to go along with them are laughably bad. Lots of quasi-fantasy drivel with loads of romance thrown in. Nothing deeply philosophical or even slightly thought-provoking is present. And I hate how generic the track titles are: Vengeance for Blood? That hardly makes sense. Dreams of Empire? Come on Mark, you know how to speak English, and leaving out “the” in the name of the song doesn’t make your album any more accessible to Japanese fans.
Overall, this is an extremely melodic neo-classical/power metal album with some slight prog influences and very competent performances from all band members. The production should have put more emphasis on the guitars, but at the end of the day it’s still listenable, if not very headbang-able. Fans of melodic power metal should check this out.
Ring of Fire is the brainchild of ex-Malmsteen vocalist Mark Boals, whom like many other singers who collaborated with the Viking of shred, has found his own musical identity and is now expanding the same genre that Yngwie pioneered. The phenomenon of Power/Prog is the consequence largely of Yngwie’s fascination with odd time meters, non-conventional song structures, and a complete lack of hindrance in the soloing department. In the same manner, Boal’s solo release “Ring of Fire” saw the expansion of this sound with the addition of a more symphonic approach to arrangements through the use of keyboards (though not nearly as much as bands like Rhapsody and Dark Moor) and a more riff steeped and more non-conventional approach to song structure inspired by the likes of Symphony X and Ayreon.
“The Oracle”, like any album falling under the Power Metal umbrella (an umbrella that has expanded quite a bit since the late 90s), is loaded with plenty of melodic and epic sounding speed metal tracks like “Circle of Time”, “Shadow in the Dark”, “City of the Dead”, and the amazingly riveting album closer “Face the Fire”. However, the presence of Vitalij Kuprij’s very unique approach to keyboard usage as well as Malmsteen-like shredder George Bellas is a far different beast from anything that you’ll find on a Gamma Ray or Blind Guardian release.
Various outside influences are always a staple of the Progressive sound, and on here we have plenty of them, ranging from Neo-Classical influences in the form of a Bach-like Organ solo titled “Prelude for the Oracle” to the far eastern influenced down tempo metal track “Samurai”. “Land of Illusions” and the title track are probably the most non-conventional Power Metal songs I’ve heard, the former having some deceptive sectional changes that make you think the song ended and a new one began, while the latter is a towering Prog epic loaded with technical intrigue that it rivals the craziest stuff Michael Romeo has ever concocted.
Although musically this is only a slightly more Progressive evolution from the amazing solo album that bears the band’s name, this one also has the edge in production, particularly as far as the drums go. In addition, bassist Phillip Bynoe is much more technically proficient at the instrument than either Boals or Macalpine is, thus creating a much more varied instrumental texture that is a bit more befitting of the Power Prog format.
If you are a fan of the Ring of Fire release by Mark Boals, or if you’re a Prog metal fan who loves melodic and fast paced stuff such as Symphony X, but also can take some slower Ayreon interludes, then this album will not disappoint. I never thought I’d say it but Mark Boals has actually surpassed his former mentor Yngwie here. I will always recognize Malmsteen as the one who first broke the mode, but like any proud father, I hope he will take the same pride in knowing that he had a hand in all that went on both here and in the Power Prog scene in general as I did when I first sampled my purchase.