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What do I know about Greek power metal? Not much really. I’ve listened to Firewind, but for all his fiery licks, Gus G. has yet to convince me as songwriter. I should mention Emerald Sun, a group with a solid, if generic style, which sounds more German than Mediterranean to my ears. And then there’s Wardrum, from the same scene of Thessaloniki cheesemakers. Not so long ago, the band was just a tiny blip on my radar. That is, until they managed to utterly surprise me with their fourth album, Awakening, which might be the best power metal record of 2016. Once again, I’m taught a valuable lesson: no European should ever turn his back on the Greeks.
Sit back and let me tell you why Awakening is such a standout release. European power metal is overwhelmingly vocal-driven. Powerful, emotive singing is meant to push the performance into the realm of melodrama, lending a larger-than-life character to the protagonist of the songs. In Wardrum, Yannis Papadopoulos takes on this role of the tragic singer-hero, who imparts wisdom to the listeners by sharing his ordeal. He suffers so that, maybe, the audience doesn’t have to suffer a similar fate. It’s like experiencing the five stages of grief in quick succession. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance in the course of a single hour. Don’t tell me that’s not exciting.
Precisely because of its vocal-centric nature, some purists tend to disavow power metal, claiming it’s just some pimped up version of pop music. That may be true, but a lot of fun goes into the pimping. On Awakening, each of the non-vocal instruments work in unison to provide metallic substance to the songs. While percussion is very precise and fill-happy, the bass is smooth and occasionally snappy. Thanks to their varied and lively expression, the twin guitars also claim a fair share of the attention. Especially the flourishing arpeggios and other lead phrases give the music the required amount of harmonic depth. Check out the video of “Sometimes”, which listens like a master class on how to write a compelling metal-powered pop song.
Drummer Stergios Kourou and guitarist Kosta Vreto decided to evenly split the songwriting duties. Each turned out six compositions. History books will tell you this is a classical Greek approach to organisation. Nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition for personal fame, as long as all the champions pull together in the end. The result is a highly consistent record, without any weak spots in the phalanx. “Let the Flames Grow” is perhaps the best of the Kourou-penned songs. In the track’s verses, Papadopoulos sings about life’s many joys and sorrows, a dualistic tale which is mirrored in the instrumental background, where squealing notes undermine the confidence of the punchy rhythm riffing. “Virtues of Humanity” is a great track by Vreto, whose neoclassical style is inspired by the likes of Angra and Symphony X. I like the ambiguity in lyrics. The fist-pumping chorus has you shouting “Some of us still believe”, while in the coda, faith is recognized as “the ultimate fallacy”. What a creative way of using metal’s clichés against themselves.
Awakening is the sound of a band in its prime. True enough, Wardrum is not redrafting the power metal rulebook. That one was written some years ago by legends such as Crimson Glory, Helloween and Rhapsody. But at least these talented Hellenes have consulted all the chapters, instead of merely the first few. By virtue of diligent work and an unceasing sense of wonder, they have created a record with considerable staying power. I can imagine still playing this in my car stereo three years from now. No small achievement, indeed.
I liked Wardrum's last album Messenger, but this new one, titled Awakening is an improvement in almost every aspect – it sees the band moving into a more aggressive, more melodically intricate and better written and performed direction, and I love them for it. I think this band is the next Big Thing in the genre, personally. They are just fucking acing it on this one.
The sound here is pretty much straight-up no-bullshit power metal – this is a crisp, heavy album full of music that lives and dies by the hooks and headstrong, clear melodic trappings, complete with a clean but razor-sharp production job. This album is full of careening, speed-metal guitars and the shrieking, piercing wail of singer Yannis Papadopolous, who is seriously first rate. He is in top form here, delivering an aggressive but emotive performance that blows me away every time. He's also got a great steely-but-silken tone that works to sell the album with a ton of character and personality. This guy is seriously a first-rate performer, and I think this is the kind of performance that will help the whole band get better known.
These are intricate, complex songs, with tons of cool leads and melodies interwoven into all of them. It's so technical and detailed it actually starts to remind me of U.S. band Pharaoh on its most dextrous moments – a stunning compliment to Wardrum. But far from being a sterile technical exercise, this is also a visceral, heart-pounding, exciting metal album that hooks you in with big, powerful melodies. Opener “The Unrepentant” is a melodic, shrieking blast of energy, and further songs like “Let The Flames Grow,” the addictive “Sometimes” and the Painkiller-like “Baptized In Fire” keep up the momentum. The album reaches a high point in the duo of “Medusa” and “Time Is The Enemy” – songs that show the band at their most blisteringly complex but also their catchiest and most powerful. The album doesn't lose steam later, either, with the blazing melodies of “Dreams In The Dark” and the masterful title song captivating right until the last notes of the album play.
This is a band that has really refined its abilities and moved into the A-league of their genre – every single member of the band is performing at his best on here. The songs are catchy enough to like on one listen but reveal new melodic layers and hooks on five or six, and that is a perfect balance to have so far as accessibility. This album is such a simple victory that it almost doesn't need to be stated – they've worked hard over numerous albums and it shows in the incredible precision, detail and melodic mastery of Awakening. If you're into power metal at all, this is an album you won't want to miss.