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This album sort of summarizes the problem I have with a lot of the europower genre as a whole - while this album is more rooted in heavy/glam metal with some power metal elements, it does have a lot in common with much of europower, stylistically. The foremost such similarity is the super, super terribly big gay choruses which europower seems to employ more often than not. Sure, Stormwitch always made use of big, catchy choruses; hell, that's half their appeal, I know that. But they were never this goddamn, well...flowery. Take the very first song, "Call of the Wicked," for example. The riffs are alright, the verse is pretty decent, then the chorus comes in and makes me wish I hadn't eaten yet as I feel bile rising up in my throat. The delivery and musical style of the line "Call of the wicked! Whoa-oh!" as it's used here is more rooted in glam rock than in metal, undeniably. You get female vocals backing up the male vocals (not that that's bad in and of itself, but in the context it is), sung in a poppy, neutered style that, while slightly hinted at in 1986's Stronger than Heaven, was never come close to on that album. Sure, the songs and choruses there were catchy, but it was still more about catchy riffs than about poppy vocal lines; the vocal lines, even in the chorus, were always backing up the riffs, not the other way around. Here, the landscape has changed. What riffs there are are here more as support to these overly poppy, saccharine choruses.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the album is bad as a whole, nor that even every single song has a chorus like this; there are a couple of legitimately good songs here ("Just for One Night," "Tigers of the Sea," "Cheyenne"), but the glam influence isn't just in the choruses, either. Take "Emerald Eye"; that main riff is super simple, dumbed down to the point that it lacks any aggression or even interesting quality on its own, clearly built only as a simple repetitive background to the equally dumb vocal lines. This is evident as much in the verses as in the chorus in this song. "Call of the Wicked" and "Emerald Eye" are far from the gayest and floweriest the album gets, either. The utterly vomit-inducing title track may perhaps hold that title - my god, that chorus is sub-Kiske Helloween shit (to mention another flowery album from 1987). It's really quite strange that they named the album after what is quite easily the worst track they'd ever written up to that point, but so be it. That track, along with the aforementioned "Call of the Wicked" and "Emerald Eye" have the brunt of the glam influence here (it does creep in in other places, like the chorus of "Russia's on Fire"), but the album is still far from being great otherwise. "Russia's on Fire" and "Welcome to Bedlam" seem a bit rushed and sloppy, especially "Russia's on Fire," which contains a total of one fairly-good-but-not-great riff over 6 fucking minutes - the longest track on the album, and also the one which contains the least musical ideas. The chorus also feels like an afterthought, just "WHOA-OH" repeated, literally. "Welcome to Bedlam" is listenable, and even mildly enjoyable much of the time, but still has problems that, in my opinion, still puts it below any song from the first three albums. There's still a bit too much repetition here, the chorus is really boring (as well as slightly glammy/flowery), and the flow could be better in places. The main riff is really good, and the vocal lines in the verses are pretty good, but again the chorus is simply subpar; not as bad as the 3 glam tracks, but still not very good.
Finally, I'll briefly address the ballad, "Tears by the Firelight." It's a fairly decent track really - putting the number of tracks I like here at 4, and a 5th that's not bad; only half the album is truly bad, in other words, but I think that the inclusion of this ballad, despite it being decent, truly pinpoints the problems I have with the album, and especially the direction it was taking the band towards. The first 3 albums had not a single ballad anywhere; not one over the course of 26 tracks (not including the intro on Stronger than Heaven). The band wanted to include one here, and the title track is so flowery and limp as to come close to one as well. It shows that the band was becoming less interesting in being metal and more interested in "beauty," as they saw it, I suppose. Never again would they return to writing decent riffs after this album; while I don't really like Beauty and the Beast as a whole, I could accept it if it was merely a misstep for the band; in that capacity, it would be understandable. The thing that really fills me with vitriol, though, is that this album seems to have, either symbolically or actually, ruined the band. This is much a parallel to the Helloween album I mention in the title of the review; while I personally wasn't even a huge fan of Walls of Jericho, the followup Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I completely departed from the style, yet still had some decent songs and good musical ideas scattered throughout, and was by far the best album the band would ever release again. This album, to me, represents a piece of the fall in power metal from aggression to fully embracing the flowery, the gay, the riffless. It is not awful, and there are a few tracks worth keeping among your Stormwitch collection, but it is a sad, sad album to me, and I'll never really be able to like it overall in any capacity. Stormwitch are done here.
Commercial is a weird word when it comes to heavy metal. In general terms, it means a band dumbs-down its music and starts singing about how much they’re gonna “rock ya” or how many pairs of tits they can get in their sleek Lamborghini. With The Beauty and the Beast this is not really the case. Sure, this is a slicker and more accessible album than its predecessors, but that seems to be a logical progression as Tales of Terror was more polished than the debut and Stronger than Heaven is certainly not a particularly gritty affair. Indeed, describing this album as simply ‘more commercial’ doesn’t really do it justice at all. Most, if not all, of the successful elements from Stronger than Heaven are still here it’s just that the gothic horror aspects are just a little bit sweeter. In fact, most of the songs on this album certainly wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on its predecessor, so it’s pretty safe to say that if you liked Stronger… you’ll find a lot to like about this one, too (albeit the first two tracks might take some getting used to).
Stormwitch have definitely branched out a little bit here, but they’ve still got that Hammer Horror charm to them. Take ‘Just For One Night’ for instance, which just really shows how true to their Hammer Horror metal roots the band are. ‘Just For One Night’ sounds like typical Dokken fodder about a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” one night stand – wherein our hunky protagonist would satisfy a young maiden’s every desire leaving her with a longing for more and a strange rash in-betwixt her legs – but in actuality it’s a typical ghost story. Again, it’s pure Hammer Horror! Just remember whenever Peter Cushing or whoever would arrive at a strange tavern in an isolated village in Hungary or Austria (no doubt one where its female population was suitably chesty) and express his desire to stay at a haunted castle and the whole tavern would suddenly become silent upon hearing this stranger’s unusual request. It’s pretty much got that vibe. A daring man arrives at a strange town and seeks out to gain his fortune or to learn fear at the hands of some ghostly apparition who is haunting the abandoned mill. Musically, it’s rousing fun; simplistic riffing, blazing solos and a big catchy chorus; 1980s metal fun that always makes me smile.
Similarly, Stormwitch don’t quite seem content to follow the “commercial formula” with the album’s ballad. Simply because ‘Tears by Firelight’ doesn’t ever feel the need to assert its metalness. It’s content simply with being a ballad and doesn’t need to give us a big clichéd loud part complete with guitar heroics. And for this reason it’s a lot more successful than a lot of other metal ballads which often don’t seem content to exist as soft songs and have to put in a big climatic moment, which can sometimes ruin the previously established atmosphere. Obviously, lyrically, this matches the song perfectly as any big chest-beating heroics wouldn’t suit the song’s tale of one woman’s loss and grief. It seems that Stormwitch don’t cheapen their songs with unnecessary add-ons and that they always valued the overall story of their songs.
Moreover despite being a bit sleeker in sound this time around; the album’s actually got more of an epic quality than any other 1980s Stormwitch album. Whereas on previous albums, perhaps only ‘Jonathan’s Diary’ and ‘The Sword of Saigon’ hinted at epic qualities – indeed it seems that ‘Jonathan’s Diary’, for instance, is simply a longer song because it has more narrative material to fit in. This time around, however, there’s ‘Russia’s On Fire’ which actually seems like a precursor to Running Wild’s ‘The Battle of Waterloo’. It’s a grim tale of the Napoleonic wars; frozen fields and countless deaths. Perhaps we could take it as a counterpart to ‘Tears by Firelight’ – with this being the male perspective of the horrors of war from a doomed soldier, while his wife waits at home with no news of her beloved at the front (I'm sure the band didn't mean it like this as 'Tears by Firelight' ends with the victory being claimed, whereas the French campaign in Russia was, er, less than successful, but still it's a nice way to interpret the songs).
Strengthening the similarities Stormwitch have to Running Wild – at least in terms of lyrical themes, as musically, the two aren’t so similar in sound – is the fact that there’s a pirate-themed track here. One could accuse Stormwitch of following RW’s footsteps but it’s certainly worth noting that Stormwitch were singing about pirates in 1984! Moreover, ‘Cheyenne (Where the Eagles Retreat)’ is rather close to ‘Uaschitschun’ from 1988’s Port Royal. So, if anything, it’s likely that Rolf was inspired by Stormwitch and not vice versa (although, it’s highly probable that both bands were listening to each other). ‘Tigers of the Sea’, however, is a fun little number. Perhaps it’s a little more cartoonish than Running Wild’s pirate-themed numbers, but still a lot of fun. The album’s closer, however, ‘Welcome to Bedlam’ is one of my favourites here. I always appreciate tales of mental illness in metal and this is quite an excellent number with Mück really getting into character, cawing and cackling like a madman on certain lines. It’s one of the faster numbers on the album and it’s always nice to close on a bang like this.
In fact, I really must applaud Stormwitch’s development here; they’re never overstretched or uncomfortable sounding but rather building on previously established ground. Andy Mück still sounds like a rakish, anaemic aristocrat – feverish from opiates and an excess of wine – obsessed by his own morbid thoughts and the fact that the witches conspire against him in the countryside and that there’s a strange groaning sound coming from the family vault. Although The Beauty and the Beast is not as classic as Walpurgis Night or Stronger than Heaven, which I would suggest for newcomers to the band, it’s still a mandatory listen for fans of this underappreciated band.
When you look at this band's previous and subsequent works, it is obvious that this is not a common sound for them. You would have to have a wooden ear to not hear that this album was carefully put together by its creators for commercial success. That being established, the question you have to ask yourself of this record is weather It fulfilled its intent or not. Its not as simple as "I like it" or "I don't like it". The answer to the question is both yes and no.
Yes, because to this day this is this bands most commercially successful record. No, because it still didn't make them all that popular. On its own terms its a completely acceptable affair, its nothing more than an attempt at mass acceptance, and doesn't try to be a larger, or more sophisticated body of work. You have to drop a lot of preconceived notions of what metal is supposed to be to understand why this album is good. They weren't trying to make a break through, genre defining, magnum opus here. The title track is "The Beauty and the Beast" for crying out loud. This was an album aimed at peoples ears from the very start.
You need a few things in the year 1987 in a rock record in order to get mass radio play. Number one, bring forth the pop synths. Remember, Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" had just come out. I should not have to remind you of how much synth there is in that song. So BATB (as I will now abbreviate this album) covers that base early and obviously in the title track. Pop synths: check.
Next, lets take a look at what the number one single of that year was. I doubt anyone remembers, but I looked it up, it was "Walk Like an Egyptian" by the Bangles. Oh joy. So what did that song have that gave all the stupid people an eargasm? I'll save you all the trouble of listening to it by telling you that it was an unreasonable amount of good cheap catchiness. Its upbeat, its in a major key, you can dance to it, you can play it to almost any demographic, and no one is offended (except maybe some Egyptians). So, where can we find this in BATB? Well, its nearly every-goddamn-where. I compared all the songs in the album to "Walk like and Egyptian" on a time signature/ tempo basis. Call of the Wicked, Just for One Night, Tigers of the Sea, and Welcome to Bedlam all have a 4/4 time signature that hovers around the 180-190 bpm range just like the aforementioned song, and they'll all in a major key. Catchy upbeat song writing: Check.
Now what would seal the deal for a potential pop metal single on a very pop metal album? Hmmmm, you know what was big back then? Metal singers doing duets with chicks. Once again, the title track. Ozzy followed their cue a year later when he did "Close My Eyes Forever". Then Dave Mustain did it with that chick from Lacuna Coil. Even Lemmy took part in this practice with some woman named Doro Pesch. Theres more of them too. The point is that this was a popular tactic around that time, its probably some attempt to keep the female demographic involved in the scene.
There are other things that made this album really exceptionally mass media friendly, but those are the main points I wanted to illustrate. When you are making an album with the clear intent to sell a bunch of records, you start noticing formulas and repeated themes. Does it compromise the total integrity of the album in the vastness of metal, yes. Does it compromise itself as a work of up beat poppy metal goo, no, as it is clearly not trying to be anything loftier than that.
Now that I've spent too much time explaining all that crap, lets get to the actual music, shall we? Despite this being an obvious attempt to reach some kind of audience, I admire the honesty in the music. Nothing is disguised or ambiguous here. You're practically punched in the face by how pompous and upbeat this is, and you know what? Its damn consistent. The tone of this album follows through straight to the end. The only time it kind of dips into a more solemn tone is "Russia's on Fire", but that song still sounds like it belongs with the rest.
I won't burden this already long review with a track by track review, but I will mention my favorite tracks. This doesn't happen often, but I have to admit that the last 3 songs are my favorites, "Russia's on Fire", "Cheyenne", and "Welcome to Bedlam". "Russia's on Fire" seems to me to be no less gloomy than a nice depressive black metal song. The notes could have been tremolo picked if this song were done by a different band. As it is played, however, its perfectly fine. Nothing feels missing, or over indulgent, just a level headed, plodding, melodic song. There is one weird part, an interlude features a woman delivering some kind of monologue in russian. I asked my friend who speaks the language fluently to tell me what she was saying, but its so washy sounding that he couldn't make heads or tails of it.
"Cheyenne" appeals to me because of its pacing and riffage. Its probably the closest thing to true thrash or speed metal on the whole album. Double bass is always a plus. The song also features some Blind Guardian-like lead guitar harmonies, also always a plus. I can't lie and say that it isn't worthlessly catchy, because it is, and I know some people don't appreciate that. It works for my taste. Unlike a lot of metal musicians, I don't have a problem with major keys. I'll skip the paragraph on "Welcome to Bedlam", because I'd only be reiterating things.
Finally, after I've said all of that, I hope you understand where I am coming from with my review of this cd. I tried as hard as possible to not be "I like it, its good" or "I hate it, its bad". Foregoing the pretense of my personal tastes seemed paramount to make an effective review. Overall, if you're open minded, and don't get furious over mildly over stated pop metal records from the 80s (if thats not a forgiving decade for this sort of thing, than I don't know what is) than I suggest giving this a shot. That is if you can find the damn thing, these Stormwitch records are getting sparse. If theres one song I would absolutely tell you to skip, it would be the title track. It just reeks of failed-pop-hit-singleness. They set out to make this record exactly what it ended up being, and although that may not please all of us, they did a good job of it.