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The Spell Of Iron was the debut of Finnish lads Tarot, recently famous for including among their number one Marco Hietala, who became the vocalist for Nightwish bla bla bla. Never mind all that, back then Marco was just a skinny Finnish bloke with lots of bright blonde hair and an amazing guitar player for a brother. Oh, the hair? Seriously, go to wingsofdarkness.net and check out the older pics, you'll never look at the Viking of mainstream metal quite the same again. Get a load of those leather trousers.
The Spell Of Iron begins with a quadrilogy of blaring traditional heavy metal songs the likes of which you would have a job beating from all the crop of the late eighties. Beginning with the sound of wind, a guitar soon drones into life through its amp and the 'Neon Knights'-like rhythmic chug of 'Midwinter Nights' starts. Straight off the bat, Zachary Hietala proves he is just as much a star as Marco, sounding as if he has been making metal albums for ten years. The riffs are catchy and complement Marco's booming voice perfectly, before the track explodes into a classical solo.
'Dancing On The Wire' might be the best thing on here, for its dark and brooding riffs years ahead of their time. The slow break, almost a breakdown, in 'Dancing On The Wire' pretty much invented a style of slow, tense guitar riffing that melodic death metal bands from Tarot's native land would adopt with glee but a few years later. The wailing sirens that make up the lead melody to 'Back In The Fire' evoke a primal and passionate urge in the heart of the metalhead, a raw ignition of all the '80s were capable of. A decade that spawned most of the best genres and bands within heavy metal today deserves a searing cut like this to represent it. The crashing drums of Pecu Cinnari really begin to stand out at this point in the album. 'Love's Not Made For My Kind' sounds like a much darker rendering of a Sacon song circa the early eighties, a pretty simple number but with a satisfying chugging riff and a bleak yet mighty chorus from Marco.
And then things go...not bad, just a bit funny. 'Never Forever' sounds for all the world like Iron Maiden, the same spiral of melodic leads and galloping riffs you would associate with songs like 'The Trooper' and 'Aces High', and a chorus not unlike 'Die With Your Boots On' in its melody. Unfortunately, here Tarot don't really sound like Tarot, not the Tarot of the four songs the people of 1986 had heard nor the subsequent albums in the name. The title track has some nice cantering drums and a roaring chorus that, even with Venom already slithering into life, would have sounded quite vicious for the time. The instrumental 'De Mortui Ni Nisi Bene' is inexplicable, three minutes of not particularly catchy guitar meandering and throwaway riffs, before 'Pharao' begins with more power metal influences creeping in, and a sort of drunken sounding gang shout in the pre-chorus. Marco sounds a bit tired and even Zachary's electrifying riffs are beginning to falter by this time. Not impossible to enjoy, just smells a little like filler to my ears. Nose, rather.
Beginning with the tumbling drum fill at its beginning, 'Wings of Darkness' kicks the album back into life. This is one of Tarot's most identifiable tracks, showcasing Marco's famously raucous vocal delivery developing into almost the exact techniques he would use in the more star-studded latter period of his career. The verses make it, brilliant chugging guitar rhythms and clever vocal lines. The guitar solo is a self-indulgent bit of showing off from Zachary. Not to mention that, two years before even TYR by Black Sabbath, Tarot had already begun singing about Valhalla! Although they wouldn't return to these themes much, it's interesting to note the seemingly natural obsession Scandinavian bands seem to have with all that fun mythology. 'Things That Crawl At Night' closes the album on a very strong note. It's this album's 'Over & Over', the 'Shame On The Night.' Marco displays a much softer and more tender vocal style at the beginning, slowly building into a more barrel-chested sounding tragic lament.
Marco's bass and voice are not as dominant as they would become. However, belying his spandex-draped hair metal appearance at the time, there was already a glottal and aggressive edge to the Dio meets Gillan style he adopted. The guitar solos courtesy of brother Zachary are based in classical elegance and technique, with a slight mournful whine to them that would become associable with Tarot albums. The two brothers really stand out; Marco's vocal delivery was already unlike any other popular style at the time, despite deriving from several important influences, while Zachary had already created the essential core of Tarot, speed metal filtered through NWOBHM and traditional Sabbath style metal. The production sound of the album is bloody nice. It has enough of a vintage feel to sound its age, but is still very clear, allowing every instrumental and vocal element to come through fully. The drums sound particularly tasty, a touch of hollowness to the percussive, crunchy sound Pecu Cinnari's playing benefits from.
Essentially, The Spell Of Iron is doing well until the boys start trying to cover all bases. After the fourth track there is a sudden drop in quality as each track goes by until you get to 'Wings of Darkness.' The album falls prey to the excitable desire of young guys who suddenly have a chance to release a record wanting to pay an homage to all the bands they grew up with at once. Not that this is an entirely bad thing; Tarot were already showing the talent they would continue to exhibit over their long career, particularly in the guitars and vocals department. The realization that a record built around their strengths rather than their influences would fare better as a cohesive album came with time. The Spell Of Iron remains one of the best unsung albums to come out of 1986, first ignored for its anachronistic sounds and later for Marco's affiliation with Nightwish eclipsing his past glories.
Tarot are one of those bands who have been around for a long time, yet never managed to gain any sort of recognition for a large chunk of their career. I mean, these guys have been around since the mid '80s, and they've been pumping out the same brand of high octane Heavy/Power Metal ever since then, touting a stellar songwriting motif and pumping out consistent, enjoyable albums in a fashion that most bands could only dream of. Like the rest of the small minority who actually listens to these guys, I was introduced to this band through their later works; the seminal Suffer Our Pleasures from 2003 and the heavy, chunky Crows Fly Black from 2006, and like them, I fell in love that day. The natural solution was to track down their older albums, too.
What is the result of this, you might be wondering? Well, even if you weren't, I'm still going to tell you. This is their debut album, and it's good. No need to beat around the bush. It's a good album, boasting a solid set of melodic, pristine Heavy Metal that only the 80s underground could produce. However, unlike most of their contemporaries in the West, Tarot didn't really sound like anyone else. They had riffs and they had sing-along choruses a la Iron Maiden and Dio, and they had the quirky underground charm a la Manilla Road or Omen, but they didn't sound anything like the other Heavy Metal acts of the time, mainstream and underground alike. These guys had their own sound; a powerful, headstrong formula that defined itself on the snappy, melodic riff-work of Zachary Hietala, who pumped out bushels and bushels of great riffs and short, flashy solos that just ruled no matter what. Frontman Marco Hietala was no slouch either, though, with his strong mid-ranged voice giving these songs character and poise all throughout the album's duration, and his bass even showing through a number of times. One of the main reasons this band was and is so cool is that they never sounded like a copy of anything or anyone, which is pretty hard to say for most bands that never really pioneered anything or started a new genre.
The album kicks off with the midpaced, ultra-melodic riff-monster "Midwinter Nights," a chilly, frosty little number that will lodge itself into your skull with hooks galore. "Dancing On the Wire" keeps the pace up with a furiously cool tune, with Marco hammering out a catchy chorus over a set of riffs to die for, and then "Back in the Fire" is a more mellow, epic song with a better chorus and another great riff. Later on you get killer songs like the title track and "Wings of Darkness," the latter of which is one of the band's staple songs, and both of which are definitely my favorites on this thing. They even try their hands at a super-ballad titled "Things That Crawl At Night," and Marco's shrill, delicate voice makes it very chilling and atmospheric; a fitting closer. Not every song is cool, with "Never Forever" and "Pharao" being a bit less memorable, but even at their more mediocre moments, Tarot still remain charming, listenable and extremely enjoyable. The Spell of Iron is a classic album from a band that definitely needs more recognition, so check this one out if you can.
Originally written for http://www.metalcrypt.com