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If you've never heard of Van Canto, it's imperative that you know just what you're getting yourself into. Under normal circumstances, they would be classified as a melodic heavy-slash-power metal group. However, there is but one thing that prevents said normal circumstances from occurring: the fact that the group is made up of five vocalists and a drummer. That's right. Van Canto is an a cappella metal group. How does it work? Well, I'll get to that.
Unlike their previous album, Hero, Tribe of Force has significantly fewer cover songs (Read: two), so most of what you hear is original material. Some of it is fantastic, some is mediocre, and some, well, is still original, at least. We first dive into a song called "Lost Forever," which starts off with a vocal riff that is pure cheese, even for these guys, and leads into an uninteresting verse and a boring chorus. This does not bode well, starting their album with something this dull. Oh, and just wait until the mid-point, where the song slows and you hear some of the worst riffs Van Canto has ever penned, and then--wait, what's this?! A guitar solo?! Surely you jest!
Why yes, I do. The aforementioned riffs, as well as the solo, are performed entirely with vocals. The riffs comprise of the lower-voiced male vocalists doing scat (rubba-dubba doo bah run-dah run-dah maw maw maw maw!) and the solos are performed when one of them squeals and roars into a voice-manipulation device (meedly meedly meedly NYEEEEEEERRR!!), which actually very closely simulates the sound of an electric guitar in the act of soloing. Now then, with that bit of technical wizardry explained, it's time to get back to Tribe of Force.
Next up is "To Sing a Metal Song," which has some great catchy riffs and a chorus you will never be able to remove from your brain, but the lyrics are a little less than stellar (basically, they're defending their a cappella style from diehard fans of the more traditional metal style). You'll notice this with many Van Canto tracks: the songwriting may be great for some tracks, but the lyrics are almost never up to snuff. Speaking of terrible lyrics, "One to Ten" follows right behind, offering a slower and heavier song, but doesn't sacrifice catchiness to achieve it. Apparently this song features Victor Smolski from Rage, but I didn't notice him. Maybe you will, but eh. Good track, nevertheless.
Then the album trips and stumbles some more. "I am Human" is a pretty lackluster mid-tempo singalong with a pretty weak setup, "My Voice" is just in-your-face and annoying right from the very start, and "Rebellion" is a decent cover of a classic Grave Digger track, but it just pales in comparison to the original. At least this time the guest singer, Chris Boltendahl, is placed right up front in the production, so we can appreciate his contribution to the cover (he's a little ragged sounding, but otherwise does a great job). Good news, everyone! The album significantly improves from here!
"Last Night of the Kings" features a wonderful folksy sound (as well as the best fantasy lyrics on the album, detailing a plot to overthrow some nobles), and is probably the most mellow track on the album. Next up is the title track, and right from the get-go you know it's gonna be something good. More great riffs, some really good intertwining vocal melodies...the whole thing just works. "Water Fire Heaven Earth" is a slight step down in the creativity department, feeling slightly derivative of their earlier material, but hey, it's still a great song. Stop being picky.
Coming in as Cover Track #2, "Master of Puppets" is probably the best cover Van Canto has ever put out (right next to their Manowar cover from the previous album), unleashing some really aggressive a cappella fury upon those who listen and doubted that a cappella could be aggressive. It's a nearly pitch-perfect cover of a nearly pitch-perfect Metallica track. Good stuff. Following this beast is a power ballad of sorts called "Magic Taborea," where it seems Van Canto cheats on its own gimmick by including orchestral melodies in the mix alongside the rakka-takkas and run-diggity-duns. But who cares, right? It sounds great, it's catchy, and doesn't overstay its welcome, and most importantly, the orchestra adds a nice touch.
And once again, Tribe of Force falls flat on its face. "Hearted" is pretty terrible, without a single memorable riff or melody (pretty much the only memorable thing is how badly Tony Kakko is misused here). Everything just falls apart for this track. The album's finisher, "Frodo's Dream," has some good melodies while it builds up, but ultimately does nothing. It sounds like it wants to be a high-flying narrative epic, but...yeah. It goes nowhere, and it pisses me off.
So yeah, that's Tribe of Force. For those of you keeping track at home, we have seven songs that are either fantastic or just really good, two songs that are okay, and four that just suck. I guess if you're gonna shoot at random, that's not too bad, but I was expecting better from these guys. I'd still say check it out, though, as the good tracks do outweigh the bad here.
For those who've come in late, the Van Canto formula is (to my understanding) unique in the world of metal. Instead of the traditional guitar-bass-drums lineup with vocals, we have simply drums and vocals. The guitar and bass parts are represented by vocalists, and the "traditional" vocals are shared by a male-female duo. It's a concept that fills some metalheads with concern, since it's not the traditionally done thing, but as this third album shows, it's their loss.
"Tribe of Force" demonstrates all the admirable qualities that Van Canto has shown glimpses of on their previous two albums. There are still covers - more on these in a moment - of standout classics, while there are also several original compositions by the band.
In the past, the original compositions have felt rather cliched lyrically and musically. It was as if the vocalists had simply adopted the outward trappings of a power metal outfit without really bothering to learn what made such a band tick. Given that the members all have careers in other bands, it seems unusual to say that, but it's true.
On "Tribe of Force", the originals come across as being much improved. Certainly there aren't going to be any songwriting prizes won in a hurry, but right from "Lost Forever" it's clear that this album will pack a punch - and that that punch won't purely come from recognising your old favourites being covered in an interesting way. "Lost Forever", for example, begins quite quietly but features an extended "guitar solo" as well as an incredibly punchy instrumental break which would hold its own with any more traditional metal act.
Another original of note - and there are several such - is "Last Night of the Kings". This song is entirely performed acapella, so even the drums are taken out of the equation. While this moves it further away from the metal paradigm, and while some of the lyrics calling for "an independent life" are horribly clunky, it's a brave step for the band.
The album also features only two covers - Grave Digger's "Rebellion" and Metallica's "Master of Puppets". As Van Canto have previously reinterpreted Metallica's "Battery", I was very keen to hear their take on another thrash classic. "Master of Puppets" definitely doesn't disappoint. Right from the outset, the backing vocals hit you right between the eyes with their takes on the opening riffs and the lead male vocalist does a reasonable impression of James Hetfield to boot. Metallica purists are probably running a mile after reading that paragraph, I suspect.
Probably the only letdown of the album for me (aside from the fan's usual plea of "it was too short!") is that Tony Kakko's appearance on "Hearted" seems rather under-used. I'm an admirer of Kakko's voice from his work with Sonata Arctica, and it does seem a shame not to let him rip into the song. That said, when you're sharing the studio with such a strong collection of vocalists who are willing to subordinate their own performances for the sake of the band balance perhaps you have no choice.
Van Canto seem to be releasing an album every two years at present, which bodes very well indeed for the wider audience I'm sure they'll be able to attract as their career continues.