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The best way to sum up what Sinister Realms are doing on The Crystal Eye is heavy metal but these days, it seems like being categorized as such is either shameful or too vague, so the doom label has been thrown at these guys. It's unfortunate because this US act mostly pays homage to bands such as Sabbath, Maiden and Priest. There are also traces of recent era-Candlemass in their songs but that's another band which has veered more and more toward traditional melodic metal. Despite TCE being their sophomore release, the aforementioned influences permeate the entire record to the point where the band seems to be searching for its identity.
Launching things is Winds Of Vengeance, an energetic yet mid-tempo song whose title and initial riff immediately remind of Priest. However, Alex Kristof's range and delivery are more reminiscent of Blaze Bailey with hints of Tony Martin. Every instrument has room in the mix. Even the bass can be heard clearly, which is not really surprising considering the band founder and leader is bassist John Gaffney. This is a very professional recording with a polished sound, perhaps too much so. The second track, Tormentor, has a grandiose and heavy opening before switching to quicker pace. There are several tempo changes in throughout the song which in theory make it interesting but again, this impression that the record and the compositions are too polished is noticeable. The main riff used in the verses sounds like a leftover idea from a Dickinson or Halford side project.
Trademark Maiden galloping appears on With Swords Held High. This song has the standard structure to bang your head and is played more than adequately by the musicians, yet something is lacking. Grit, energy, fierceness. It doesn't even create the tiny sparks a Bailey-era Maiden song could muster every now and then. Ample references to Iommi-style playing can be heard on the title track as well as Signal The Earth. Listen to the latter and then check out Sabbath's I Witness, off the Cross Purposes album to see the stylistic similarities. Sinister Realms is at its best when the pace slows down, such as on The Shroud Of Misery or on the album closer, The Tower Is Burning. They end things with their most memorable song by far, an epic that approaches 9 minutes in length and features Kristof's most heartfelt performance. Both tracks remind of Candlemass a little.
The musicianship by everyone involved in Sinister Realm is proficient, as can be heard on the instrumental Battle For The Sinister Realm, for instance. What can also be heard is that is a lack of adventurous spirit in the compositions and how the performances are... safe. Kantner and Risko play crisp metal riffs but they never crush. Metzger is adequate on drums but never makes your heart pound. Kristof has a nice voice with a slight edge but he never pushes it. Gaffney has crafted himself interesting bass lines but, save for a few instances such as a nice little bass line midway into The Crystal Eye, it is mostly subdued. Everyone stays in his comfort zone and the group never truly finds its own identity, instead staying far too close to the giants of old.
What's unfortunate is that they sound like these bands past their prime. In interviews, Gaffney expresses his love for legendary metal of the early 80s but this sounds less like Screaming For Vengeance and more like Nostradamus, less like Powerslave and more like X-Factor, less like Heaven and Hell and more like Cross Purposes. The sterile production and the performances do not help but the biggest culprit remains musical creativity. In this regard, one cannot help but wonder how good Sinister Realm might be if the band wasn't resting on the shoulders of a single person. Gaffney is responsible for all the music and lyrics found on this record and while there are great ideas here, there is definitely a sense that it was created in a vacuum. It is often the clash between egos that helps produce great music and Sinister Realm might be a more potent unit if other members shared the creative load and the leadership.
This remains a respectable sophomore release that suggests this group has potential it has yet to reach. None of the songs on this effort are cringe-worthy but nothing really stands out. You get the feeling Sinister Realm could do much better. Hopefully they'll persevere and be in a more adventurous spirit when they get to work on their third LP.
The call for old-school metal music seems to be at an all-time zenith of late. What I’m most intrigued by is the number of U.S. bands implementing this doom/traditional style to such high levels of competency. The homegrown soldiers are still armed to the teeth and fighting the good fight.
Pennsylvania’s Sinister Realm embodies the components necessary and essential for an album that is memorable and worthy of additional spins. After a stellar debut in 2009’s self-titled effort, the quartet is back and offering up some prime cuts of traditional heavy metal that doesn’t find comfort in the same old routines and styles all-too dated; The Crystal Eye designs a whole new blueprint for modern metal that harkens back to the NWOBHM era. While many bands are calling out this legendary style, too many are simply cut-and-paste bands doing nothing different than Angel Witch, Holland or Chinawite did 30-years ago, which is all well and good for the younger generation that missed this indelible period of our movement, but we oldsters require a little bite to our sandwich these days.
While I hasten to label Sinister Realm a NWOBHM throwback, the ingredients are certainly seasoned to taste all over these tracks, but the difference is that there is no dated feel to the music. There are no soaring vocals over intricate and Dave Murray-esque riffing; what you get on The Crystal Eye is a tremendously powering performance that simply bleeds honesty and attentiveness to detail. Vocalist Alex Kristof allows his voice of above-casual potency easily guide him as opposed to the myriad of singers that force a subpar performance far out of his or her particular range or talents. In that capacity Kristof is the perfect vocalist for such music. The tremendously memorable, yet basic music is what makes Sinister Realm a band of total reverence.
The Dio-era Sabbath tone set all over the album is particularly fresh and readily digestible in heavy doses, which is exactly what the band provides within the three-quarter hour effort before me. Devoid of bravado or flash for the sake of false advertising, this record builds a solid foundation with music that can stick in your head for a while after; it doesn’t repave the road, so to speak, but it does find a nice momentum while cruising along at about 50 mph. There’s nothing to really dislike about the band, to be truthful. The sharp, precise flow of the music can be all-encompassing as the fluidity of the guitars is center stage here. There’s such wonderful emotions channeled through these chords that you can’t help but be pulled into this album in all facets; it’s really a lesson in integrity that can’t possibly be lost on the masses of metal that actually ‘get it’.
Our local boys are mixing the cauldron ever slowly, folks. Slowly but surely we’re regaining our stead as one of the countries that takes pride in the metal music our talented brethren can offer.
(Originally written for MetalPsalter.com)
Sinister Realm checks all the right boxes. At their normal mid-paced gallop, they sound very Iron Maiden. When they slow down, they sound like Candlemass. Comparisons don't get any better than that within the traditional metal camp. These dudes know how to write a riff or a solo, and more importantly, they know how to write hooks that are catchy as hell. I want to ride with them, "with swords held high".
In terms of sound, everything is perfect. The production is clear and modern, without feeling sterile, and all of the instruments sound great. In particular, the bass tone jumps out at me. Save the misplaced acoustic outro on the title track, they get everything right compositionally as well.
However--and this is a big however--this music absolutely begs for a better vocalist. Alex Kristof delivers everything in a strong baritone with some vibrato, and in the verses it works very well. But these choruses are meant to be huge, and his voice just doesn't deliver the Dickinsonian peaks that should be there. Either he's holding back for fear of going out of key, or he just can't do it. It's not working. Get better at it, or go in an unexpected direction (maybe a growl or sneer).
The Verdict: The music in here kills, and the hooks will stay with you. But in the hook-oriented world of traditional heavy metal, the vocals can be deal-breakers. The vocals here aren't bad, but they're not nearly good enough.
originally written for http://fullmetalattorney.blogspot.com/