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It's rare that an album with good production, a good performance, and excellent songwriting goes completely unnoticed. Of course, these traits are all somewhat objective, but nonetheless there are generally certain things an experienced listener of a genre will look for; with USPM, those things are usually an energetic, powerful, charismatic vocalist; a production that both highlights the vocalist and gives the guitars some crunch; and riffs that help build a powerful or epic atmosphere. Stormbringer's Stealer of Souls demo passes all of those criteria with flying colors, and yet one still has to overturn several rocks in order to find it; with the release of only a few hundred cassettes, no label, and very little internet hype, it's not surprising the album apparently doesn't even have as much of a cult following, unless a handful of particularly well-versed power metal fans can be called a cult.
This review is an attempt to begin to remedy that. Stealer of Souls is a hidden gem of epic power metal, one of the very finest examples of the genre, with a fantastic singer, excellent production, and a songwriting style that manages to be both relatively unique and thoroughly enjoyable. It certainly deserves some more attention.
Stormbringer's style on this demo doesn't really resemble any other single band I've ever heard, and I've heard quite a few; the closest thing I can compare it to is a cross between the subtle atmosphere of Longings Past and the straightforward, explosive power of bands like Omen. At times it follows the former style, at times the latter, and at times combines the two; in all cases the riffs are consistently fantastic. The album builds one of the densest and strongest atmospheres I've ever heard in an album, while still maintaining a catchiness that makes individual songs easily listenable. This is a very difficult thing to do, especially with what appears to be a concept album; Virgin Steele are the only other practitioners of the genre that come to mind who have been able to pull off such a feat.
The vocalist definitely sounds more like something out of the blue collar variety of USPM than anything else; he sounds a bit like Chris Cronk or Harry Conklin might if they had a raspier edge to their voices and an even more powerful, forceful approach; something like the style of Vic Hix of Shok Paris. Yet during the acoustic passages he has a fantastic clean tone, and a shrieky upper register that threatens to be even more impressive than his gruff midrange. It works perfectly with the more aggressive songs, and nearly as well with the more laid-back passages.
The songs here fall vaguely into three categories, although there's significant overlap among them; those songs that focus on the more aggressive, blue collar style; those that focus on the subtle, laid-back atmosphere; and those that are about an equal dose of each. Some of the songs are pretty progressive, with frequent riff changes, so there are pretty frequently occurrences of both; however, I'll try to categorize and describe them as best I can.
"Neurotic Emperor", "Silence", "Evil Crusader", and "Temples of the Slain" fall squarely into the first category, filled with crushing riffs and crazy shrieks galore, and no acoustic passages. "Evil Crusader", "Silence", and "Temples of the Slain" are all fantastic, with the soloing being particularly good, while "Neurotic Emperor" is a bit worse, though still quite solid.
"Stormbringer", "Tanelorn" and "Vanishing Tower" fall pretty squarely into the second category, with slower songs, several acoustic passages, more ponderous riffs, and a more restrained performance by the singer; both are excellent songs, especially "Vanishing Tower", which has one of the best opening riffs I've ever heard and is one of my favorite songs on the album. "Tanelorn" also builds one of the best atmospheres on the album, creating a mystical, unsettling feeling of traversing the unknown in the listener, then exploding into the triumphant chorus.
"Vengeance" and "Ambush" are the most ambiguous, with instances of both; in both cases the song opens with an acoustic passage and then explodes into an aggressive assault of sheer power; all three songs are fantastic, especially "Vengeance", which is another favorite of mine. "Pit Fiend" I guess falls more or less into the first category, as the riffs are pretty straightforward and in your face, although it's an instrumental track.
Overall, most of the songs are top-notch and there's not a bad passage to be heard here; the atmosphere is incredible, the songs are tight and catchy, the album is coherent and it leaves nothing to be desired. My only complaint here is that the band graced us with only this demo before releasing a mediocre full-length and then fading out of existence entirely; this is easily one of the very best power metal albums I've ever heard, and is highly recommended to any fan of heavy metal, power metal, or epic metal.