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Solo efforts by frontmen in well-established metal bands often tend to stick quite closely to the formula of their parent outfit, and while superficially that may appear to be the case with Nevermore singer Warrel Dane's first venture out on his own, closer inspection reveals a rather bold CD of some depth and divergence.
Probably born from the security of still having his main band there as a reference point, Dane and his collaborators have crafted a well-rounded, though slightly frustrating first effort that presents something quite different to anything he has worked on before. What has to be remembered is that when a vocalist who does not write music comes to record a solo CD is that he is only as good as those he surrounds himself with.
Compare Bruce Dickinson's 'Skunkworks' CD with 'Accident of birth', for example – no harm to Alex Dickson (actually, scratch that, he's since been seen hanging around Robbie Williams...), but he's simply no Roy Z. Warrel Dane is without doubt one of the most unique and poetic vocalists in metal today, and while he experiments with some new vocal styles here and there (check out that gothic baritone on "Your chosen misery") the entire CD of course hinges on the actual music, where credit and indeed some scorn must go to those responsible.
The main songwriting partner Dane has chosen for 'Praises to the war machine' can be seen as quite a controversial move - guitarist Peter Wichers is of course best remembered for his time with Gothenburg pace-matchers turned mallrats Soilwork. A couple of years out of his old band, Wichers has clearly taken a shot at writing something a little different, but is unfortunately responsible for quite a few parts of the CD that reek of that most dreaded of platitudes; 'modern'.
It is maybe not as surprising as it may initially sound that the best songs on the CD are in fact the softer and more reflective ones. With these efforts Wichers and Dane have branched off in a few different directions out of keeping with their past efforts. The less satisfactory moments on 'Praises to the war machine' usually come in the heavier songs, which too often rely on simplistic grooves and come off as a more straightforward and digestible version of Nevermore. The Seattle titans have, of course, always been a very contemporary-minded band, but have always kept their integrity intact by remaining a continuation of traditional metal rather than a dilution of it.
After the pleasing opener "When we pray" comes a pairing of songs that set the alarm bells ringing on the first listen. "Messenger" and "Obey" are probably the 2 weakest tracks on the CD. The former is far too repetitive and groovy, though Dane's performance on the chorus and a guest solo from Jeff Loomis save it from complete failure, while "Obey" is just too much of an empty throwaway to win any plaudits. "Messenger" in fact is more or less sets the pattern for the more crunchy songs – the vocals are as excellent as always, but the guitar playing is often a let down. This is no better evidenced than on "The day the rats went to war" which opens on a completely hideous nu-metal chug before the chorus and a blinding James Murphy guest solo restore at least some degree of sanity.
Things don't really get properly going until the 4th track and the first of 2 cover songs on the CD, a metal version of Sisters of Mercy's goth classic "Lucretia my reflection". Perfectly rearranged by 2nd guitarist Matt Wicklund, it is an upbeat and inspired take on what was already a good song, and gives the CD a kick just as it was threatening to lag.
The finest moments on 'Praises to the war machine', however, really come to the fore when the distortion pedal is put away and Dane gets a little reflective. The most powerful moments come in these songs, especially the bitter, aching "Brother", an ode to Dane's wayward elder sibling. The line "If I could erase, one moment of pain, I'd throw away everything, even fame" in particular is just pure, caustic emotion that a lesser vocalist could not even come close to matching.
"This old man", another piece of beautiful melancholy that would have made a more fitting closer than the Gothenburg-inspired "Equilibrium" (surely a better choice for 2nd or 3rd track?) contains another such spine-tingling outburst in the final verse... it really is powerful stuff, and Dane's personal investment in the lyrics is both obvious and saddening.
"Let you down" and "Your chosen misery", lyrically tied, are a pair of keyboard and acoustic guitar-augmented songs of cynical, yet tender lyrics that show a more personal and introspective side to Dane's writing that would be out of place in his main band. The first half of the latter, before the electric guitars are broken out for a staggering finale, is in fact so soothing and meditative that it could be mistaken for something like an early Radiohead song.
With moments as outstanding as this outnumbering the more lunk-headed groove riffing found on a few songs, 'Praises to the war machine' is without doubt a triumph, though not one without a few stumbles along the way. Warrel Dane has shown a more pensive side to himself that could not be displayed in Nevermore, while Peter Wichers has gone at least some way to restoring some lost credibility. It is mildly exasperating that the levels of quality found on the high points couldn't be sustained across all 11 tracks, but this first solo venture remains a must-buy for fans of Nevermore and those who appreciate some intense sorrow in their music.
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)