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The prospect of marrying symphonic music to deathcore is an intriguing affair, albeit a very delicate and challenging one. Given the latter styles partial affinities to melodic death metal and also the extreme end of things represented in the likes of Cryptopsy and a few other more brutally oriented acts, it is not without a degree of precedence, but it's the other parts of the deathcore paradigm that present problems, namely the vocal style and frequent stagnated breakdown sections. These very stylistic quirks were largely to blame for the disjointed character that has plagued (no pun intended) the early studio efforts of Winds Of Plague, though there seems to have been a degree of stylistic soul-searching going on in the interim following the sloppily realized Decimate The Weak. Whatever this can be credited to, perhaps the departure of drummer Jeff Tenney or introducing a new keyboardist to the fray, the results are actually a noteworthy change for the better.
The contrast that has come about on The Great Stone War largely culminates in a downplaying of certain key genre traits while bringing greater emphasis to others. At first listen it's easy to mistake this for a melodic death metal album with a good helping of symphonic power metal additives, drawing in a fair amount of comparable elements to Epica and Rhapsody Of Fire at times. Closer inspection reveals that most of the "core" elements have been retained primarily through the vocals, which mix things up between a traditional hardcore shout and an assortment of brutal high and low end snarls. Apart from this, the predominant elements are heavy ended melodic riff work that occasionally exhibits some tech. tendencies, mostly leaning towards a Middle-Eastern mode comparable to Nile, but also employing a fair degree of Western neo-classical elements, which are further buttressed by the symphonic keyboard elements. In truth, the short tenure that Kristen Randall would have in this band (limited to this particular album) was arguably the best thing to happen to this band, as her proficiency definitely flirts with the sort of majestic character that Alex Staropoli brings to an arrangement, particularly when a piano sound is incorporated.
Naturally giving all the credit for this album to a short-term keyboardist is overstating things a little, as the joint efforts of the all in congress account for what's going on here musically. While there was always a strong degree of technical proficiency in the guitars and drums in this band, their chops have a great deal more focus here and manage most of the intended impact, unimpeded by the structural inconsistencies that plagued (that pun was intended) their first two LPs. The concept album feel of things and the recurring use of narrated passages definitely bring about a necessity of coherence from one song to the next, and the result is a great deal of avoidance of distracted genre shifting and overt tough guy posturing. Not to be misleading, as an album with a guest slot by Suicide Silence's vocalist is sure to have some shameless fits of "I'm gonna kick your ass" nonsense going on, but it's kept to a much needed minimum. Only a few songs such as "Chest Of Horns" and the opener "Forged In Fire" have truly overt breakdown sections, and most of the time they are brief and painted over with keyboards to make them less jarring.
To be clear, this is not something that can necessarily trade blows directly with most of the established bands that it takes inspiration from. Those seeking a truly brutal and symphonic combination would probably get a more consistent experience out of the likes of Fleshgod Apocalypse, whereas the melodic death metal angle is covered by an abundant number of bands, too numerous to name. It is, nevertheless, a good album with a lot of things going for it, and can pass for a solid token deathcore album for people that are otherwise not big on the genre. That's sort of the charm of this album, it's a rather big fish for an extremely small and shallow pond, functioning as a unique curiosity for those bored with conventional material. There's a lot of ways to cover a sword with blood, and Winds Of Plague can be credited with inventing a somewhat original finishing move.
No way around it, Decimate the Weak was shit. I maintain my stance that Winds of Plague had potential underneath the laughable posturing and trendhorning, but they needed to focus on melodic death metal with a strong symphonic presence and drop the hardcore pretenses. I understand that the vocalist is basically a pure hardcore guy judging by his vocal stylings, but the rest of the band was always hopping between hardcore, melodeath, symphonic metal, and deathcore. There was no cohesion between the style mixing, creating more of a dry salad bowl effect instead of a much tastier melting pot. Therefore, I had initially completely passed on this album because of my bitter cynicism and past experience (most bands don't make the changes that I feel will make them improve (see: All That Remains, Meshuggah, et cetera)). Eventually, like it always does, curiosity got the better of me. To my bewilderment, they actually kind of did it right this time.
Once again, go pick up your socks.
The album opens with a purely symphonic intro, entirely devoid of the insipid breakdown underneath like what was featured in Decimate the Weak's opening track. No, this time the goons restrain themselves and actually let the keys alone create a grandiose atmosphere as a backdrop for a spoken word intro. Right around here, two things came to my mind. 1) These guys are really channeling their inner Rhapsody, which could totally be a good thing. 2) This is going to be a concept album. The latter realization scared the hell out of me. I'd spun the previous album several times in a futile attempt to wrap my head around the disjointed mess, so I was no stranger to John Cooke's absurdly awful lyrics. For a concept album to be properly done, you can't just shit one out. It requires forethought, storytelling skill, and lyrical prowess, none of which this man possesses. Not to mention his hardcore/deathcore vocals wouldn't do well to carry a story anyway, and were poor by the genre's standards in the first place. Well spoiler alert, that much hasn't changed since the last outing (the title of this review is actually featured at the one minute mark of "Soldiers of Doomsday"). A couple guest vocalists show up to presumably break the monotony, but since they're the guys from Terror, Hatebreed, and Suicide Silence, they don't add much of a new flavor. Martin Stewart appears on the first proper song, "Forged in Fire", and he's the only one I can actually pick out during the album; Jasta and Lucker just pass through without much presence.
And this brings me to my next point, and by far the most important and most improved, the actual music. The disjointed cut-and-paste style of songwriting that was so prevalent and so nut twiddingly irritating on Decimate the Weak actually only manages to rear it's malformed head a few times. The aggressive melodeath riffing actually takes front and center for a majority of the record, relying on the backing keys to provide the necessary atmosphere and melody. Whichever pretty face they're using to manipulate these keyboards now has a more important role this time 'round as well. She doesn't get any solos or anything, but it's actually really noticeable when she's silent. Her main job seems to be mimicking the melodies the guitars utilize and to play simple backing chords, (apart from the occasional quiet piano passage) but it's just... better on this album. The guitar work is actually the biggest improvement to be found. The riffs aren't anything to drool over and most won't stick in your head, but they aren't purely shit like they used to be. There are a few memorable moments like the slowed-down-Bodom moment near the end of "Approach the Podium" or the simplistic yet not downright retarded guitar solos in "Battle Scars" and "Our Requiem".
I must warn the potential listener that the ever dreaded breakdown is still around, as Winds of Plague is still deathcore and therefore will not part with it unless it is pried from under their cold, dead extended earlobes. Thankfully, most of them are short lived and not too horribly flow breaking. But unfortunately, the few insipid, blatant slamdowns that occur do indeed throw a large, tattooed monkey wrench into the gears of the metal machine. A breakdown by nature is supposed to be hard hitting and brutal, it's entire purpose is to switch up a song or throw the listener off balance or just plain smash them over the head with a brick. Bricks don't flow, you've never heard of the Brick River Rapids because it doesn't fucking exist. You know what demands flow? Epic, soaring symphonics telling a tale regarding an apocalyptic conflict between good and evil. The two main forces at work here are diametrically opposed to one another, and it's really distracting. I'll concede that most of the breakdowns on display are actually somewhat subtle and manage to continue the previously set pace of the songs, but there are a few of the dreaded breed regardless. Let's loop back once again to the first proper song, "Forged in Fire". The entire song rides on a few heartfelt, if somewhat unimaginative, melodic death metal riffs. It's high speed, it's pure aggression, it's a well oiled machine running on all cylinders. Three minutes into the track, near the end, we finally get hit with a breakdown. It's at the same tempo, it flowed into itself nicely, it's just basically a fast chuggada chugging section, nothing to be too awfully upset about. Fifteen seconds later, the entire band drops and we're left with Cooke's stupid yelling. You know exactly what's coming. Yup, it's the asinine, significantly slower, one note bonehead slamdown. It's big and stupid, and that can have it's appeal if the entire idea of the music is based on it, but it isn't on The Great Stone War. The album isn't built on breakdowns, it's built on high tempo melodeath and sweeping keys. An impromptu ninja fight has no place in this experience. They never add anything to this album and serve no purpose other than to aggravate the listener. This really stupid kind isn't featured on every track like the previous album, but when they show up they're definitely distracting.
So what we're left with is yet another flawed effort, but a massively improved one. The problems that punctuated Decimate the Weak are still here, but they've been scaled back significantly. Yeah, some tracks just go by with no consequence ("Creed of Tyrants", "Classic Struggle") and some are peppered with poor decisions ("Chest and Horns", "The Great Stone War", "Forged in Fire"), but overall the few good aspects actually manage to at least match up in weight against the bad ones this time. I actually feel it manages to outweigh the bad slightly. I'll give the band credit this time, it's clear they're trying their asses off, but I just wish they'd drop the stupid core pretense and work towards a totally symphonic melodeath release. That Twizzler chain from the previous album has been replaced with a plastic chain. It still isn't entirely strong, but it can hold some weight now and is definitely sturdier than licorice.
For a long time I was making my best attempt to stay as far away from Winds of Plague as I could. Their first album, while showing a lot of potential, had way too much crap amongst its tracks to make me a fan, specifically songs like the horrendous “Reloaded.” As far away as I tried to stay away from Winds of Plague, they snuck into my ears in a most unexpected way. While driving with my friend, there was an enjoyable band playing through his speakers, which I was unable to identify. They had melody, heaviness, song structure, and proficiency with their instruments. When I asked him what the band was called, I was shocked to find out that the band was Winds of Plague.
Between Decimate the Weak and The Great Stone War, this band has greatly matured and improved into a band that can kind of be respected in the metal world. Sure, there are still crappy guest vocals on songs like “Forged in Fire,” and “Chest and Horns” but the songwriting has greatly been improved. There are breakdowns, but they’re used more efficiently than before, and for the most part, have keyboard arrangements behind them that save the band from being forgettable. In fact, the keyboards are one of the main reasons why The Great Stone War isn’t as bad as Decimate the Weak. They’re interesting and add plenty of texture to the music without being redundant.
Another fantastic thing about The Great Stone War is that the music sounds like something you would hear being played to a glorious battle between men and creatures alike in some far away land long ago. The title fits in the context of what the music is supposed to sound like, and that comes across better than a samurai inside of a spider web cave *cough cough* Decimate the Weak *cough cough*. What that was about, I’ll never know, but at least this is a theme that’s clearly present and can be grasped.
At times the guitars can be pretty repetitive, but there are moments where the rhythms and lead work are memorable and far from the same ol’ same ol’. The bass, for what it’s worth, is at least audible at times. I don’t expect much from a bass player in a band like this aside from being a sound thickener, so props to this guy for not just being mixed out during the production process, not that that’s worth much. The drummer has decent double bass abilities, but aside from that, he leaves me wanting more than what he’s allowed to be heard on this release. As for the vocals, Jon Cooke doesn’t sound like many other vocalists out there, but he doesn’t impress me too much, keeping it pretty simple with either his typical growls or hardcore yells. He has a unique sound, but fails to use this to his advantage by staying in too narrow of a range.
If this band can lose the “We’re Winds of fucking Plague and we’re here to kick your fucking ass” wigger attitude, without losing any of the momentum they’ve built up from The Great Stone War, Winds of Plague may actually be worth listening to in the future. Many of the songs on this release are incredibly melodic, and at times atmospheric. The beginning of “The Great Stone War” actually sounds like armies preparing for battle and marching into one another, which is great. It’s enjoyable to hear musical passages like that, but none of the guest vocals really added anything to the release except for negative opinions. For every pro, there seems to be a con as well.
Only time will tell if this is a change for the better, or an anomaly.