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First off let’s address the elephant with the miter in the room: Theocracy is a Christian band. For the open-minded they offer a haven of splendid power metal the close-minded are missing out on. Speaking as a non-Christian myself I can say their lyrics do not necessarily stand in the way of enjoying their music. Your choice, your gain or loss.
With that out of the way, let’s get to business. I’ve been a fan of the band since their eponymous debut and the sophomore “Mirror Of Souls” was a huge improvement over that, combining the strongest qualities of mastermind and vocalist Matt Smith into a shimmering ball of inspirational power metal. For the third release Smith has surrounded himself for the first time with a full band, and the difference is noticeable. One word: solos! The lead guitar work of Val Allen Wood adds a healthy dose of shredding madness to the recipe and the guitar work in general is the star of the album. Not to say Smith himself isn’t on excellent form here, the man delivers his best vocal performance to date. Theocracy has moved beyond what was essentially a solo project into a fully formed band.
“As The World Bleeds” assembles both the classic sound of Theocracy and a more experimental, dare I say, progressive direction, even though it was conceived almost simultaneously with “Mirror Of Souls”. Speedy power metal freaks will not be disappointed by such heavenly hymns as “The Master Storyteller” and “Hide In The Fairytale”, of which there are a whole lot more. The band can also still tear it up and it’s safe to say “30 Pieces Of Silver” is this album’s “Absolution Day”. I don’t like the word, but it ís quite “riff-tastic”. On “Mirror Of Souls” the innovation was mostly contained within the 22-minute behemoth of the title track, but here it’s smartly scattered all over the place. Opener “I AM” runs for eleven minutes during which galloping riffs and delicious orchestration trade off with Smith’s multi-layered one-man choir, listing the many ways in which God totally owns you. I am impressed and amazed, even though I first thought the song was about some occurrence at one o’clock in the night. I am in need of new glasses.
There’s more innovation coming up in “Nailed”, which both resembles “Laying The Demon To Rest” with its aggressive rhythms and “Martyr” with its oddly fitting flamenco-guitar. The song transforms to something completely new for the band in the chorus and this kind of boldness runs throughout “As The World Bleeds”. Take a look at “The Gift Of Music”. It starts out like a Christmas carol (think “Bethlehem”), but turns out to be a soaring epic with a strong build-up, catchy symphonic bridge and some metallic fury to finish. This Christmas, why not give someone the gift of music? IT ROCKS. Not all experimentation works though. A particular riff in “Drown” echoes Dream Theater’s “The Dark Eternal Night” a little too much (not to mention Machine Head’s “Old”) and the song never quite takes off, even rehashing some vocal melodies from “Mirror Of Souls” in the chorus. Luckily the current title track takes us one last time on eagles’ wings to those highest regions of power metal bliss.
Theocracy has always seemed like a good-humored band in my book, what with all their novelty and Christmas-songs (some spitfire vocals in “I AM” actually reminded me of “The Gregarious Raconteur”, a goofy track about some sort of sports announcer). The often darker and more serious tone of “As The World Bleeds” takes some time getting used to. Look at the album cover: it’s giving the river of blood from “The Shining” a run for its money. This is not for the queasy. Lyrically the crisis-of-faith theme is never far away, be it personal or universal. The prejudice a lot of people will have against this album is ironically what the band is rallying against during the title track. For the unbigoted there are at least a number of interesting subjects here, for you to agree or disagree with.
The million-dollar, or better, 30-pieces-of-silver question left is: how does “As The World Bleeds” hold up to “Mirror Of Souls”? While a strange and new album will always pale a little compared to one I’ve treasured for so long, I can safely say that Theocracy has not disappointed and that’s the only thing that matters. In the end, music is not a competition. It’s a gift.
Originally written for: www.blackwindmetal.com