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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.